Giving back

The town of Beziers holds a number of fetes and events throughout the year.  One such fete is called Les Caritats, and it takes place on May 5, Ascension day, which is a public holiday in France.  The history of Les Caritats dates back to mediaeval times.  One of the reasons behind the fete was apparently to raise money, which was then distributed among the poor.  Bread, which was blessed by the archbishop and the clergy of the town, was also distributed among the needy populace.

I went to this year’s edition of Les Caritats, to see what it was all about.  The day was sunny and warm, perfect for a fete!  A mediaeval ‘village’ had been set up on the Allees Paul Riquet, close to the municipal theatre.  The ‘camel, the totem animal of Beziers, was there too!

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When I arrived at the fete, the communal meal was already in full swing.  A lady in flowing robes was entertaining the diners with a parrot display.

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Farther down the square, a small farmyard had been set up, for the entertainment of old and young.  The animals didn’t seem to be in the slightest bothered about being on show.

The mediaeval kitchen, where children could learn to prepare dishes from the period:

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For the children, the biggest attractions were the games!  There was a great selection to choose from!

With such beautiful weather, a stroll around Beziers was a must.  I am always captivated by the wonderful facades which abound in this town!  It really must have been an amazing town to live in during its heyday in the 19th century!

If you visit Beziers, be sure to keep your eyes open for all the beauty – it can be found in unexpected places!

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Brunch in the sun

Last Sunday I headed to Beziers – there was much to do there, but the weather was not promising!  I had booked a table for brunch at Au Soleil, a small restaurant cum tearoom and fine grocery store, on Place de la Madeleine, in Beziers.

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As I approached Beziers the skies brightened a little, and when I got to the restaurant I saw that a few diners were already seated outside and tucking into their food! 😀

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The restaurant is very aptly named – if the sun is out then it will be on the terrace of the restaurant!  Au Soleil had been recommended by a friend, who’d been there for lunch on a weekday.  I’d stopped there for a cup of tea one afternoon, and found out about the brunch whilst there.  The premise of the brunch is simple: there is a self-service buffet, and you can eat as much as you like – fairly unusual in France!

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This is a variation on the American style brunch, with a French twist – more of a leisurely lunch than breakfast and lunch combined.  To my mind it was all I could have wished for!

The buffet had a very good selection – I started with the cold beetroot and raspberry soup.  It had a lovely zing to it, perfect for an appetizer!IMG_4483

I then tried some of the hams (smoked and dried) with some scrambled eggs:

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The dried ham was so good that I had another slice, this time with some chorizo, pate de campagne and some lettuce:

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Up next: rillettes de thon, a kind of tuna fish mousse, which was wonderfully creamy and delicious!

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I followed that with a piece of the courgette and pepper tart, and I added some of the cauliflower tabouleh to my plate.  Both were very yummy!

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Then it was time for the “main course”: chicken cooked in a mild (but very flavoursome) curry sauce, served with rice:

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By now you’re probably thinking that I was a bit of a piggy to have had so much food?  Be reassured, the plates were small, and so were my helpings!!  I really didn’t want to feel overly full at the end of the meal, and I wasn’t!

There were some lovely Saint-Nectaire and camembert cheeses, so I had to try them:

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The “sweet” part of the buffet offered a light chocolate cake, American style pancakes, waffles, jams and spreads, including a well-known hazelnut and chocolate spread, fresh fruit, apple compote and curd cheese.  Earlier I had overheard one of the patrons talking with a member of staff about the jams – they sounded delicious.  So I decided to try a little of each of the jams on a pancake.  I put a piece of chocolate cake on my plate too – for good measure! 😉

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The apple compote was home-made, so, for the sake of research, I had to try that too – and very delicious it was!!

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The brunch included a glass of wine, and there was tea, coffee, orange juice and apple juice on the buffet.  The price was EUR 19.50 per person – not bad for a Sunday lunch.  I photographed the menu boards for you:

Au Soleil is in a great location – Place de la Madeleine is dominated by the Madeleine church, a romanesque church with lots of history!!  The square is also close to the market halls, and to the ‘main drag’ where the theatre is located.

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The theatre was my next stop – I had received an invitation to the finals of the Concours National de Chant Lyrique, a national singing competition for classically trained voices.

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I arrived in good time, but all the seats in the stalls were already taken.  I was happy to have a seat in the front row of the second balcony – that way I also got a view of the judges, who were seated in the first balcony.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so all I can show you is this picture of the stage.

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If you are curious about what the inside of the theatre in Beziers looks like, here’s a post I wrote last year.  The competition started on time, and once our host had asked the audience members to turn off their mobile phones, he set out a few house rules.  I already knew of the ban on photography, but he also requested that there would be no clapping or applause whatsoever!  Apparently that’s the rule for competitions, so that the judges are not influenced by the audience members.

As this was the final of the competition, the number of contestants had already been drastically reduced.  Four persons competed in the operetta category (down from 15), and 15 in the opera category (down from 69).  The singers were all dressed beautifully, and they had obviously worked very hard to get to where they were.  I found the first two ladies in the operetta category a little painful to listen to – they had big voices, but some of their high notes sounded rather shrill to me.  The third candidate was much better than the previous two, and the fourth was the best of them all.

In the opera category I listened to another five performers.  There was a lovely sounding tenor, who appeared to be very nervous.  Then came two sopranos and another tenor, who were unremarkable.  The last candidate I listened to was a 23-year-old soprano, who had a most beautiful voice.  She really had something about her, a great stage presence, a good vocal range and a lovely tone – no shrill notes there!  I didn’t get her name, and because of a prior engagement I couldn’t stay until the end of the competition, but I hope that the young lady made it into the top three.  And perhaps I’ll be able to listen to her again somewhere, sometime?

P.S.  Roberto Alagna, the well-known opera singer, is a past winner of the competition in Beziers!

Behind the scenes

During the summer months there are so many things going on in the area – it’s hard to keep up with it all, and harder still to write about it all at the time that it happens.  So some stories get put by for later, when it’s a little calmer, and when a reminder of summer is welcome.

The tourist office in Beziers had a full programme of guided visits during the summer.  I found time to go on one guided visit, which was a tour of the Arenes de Beziers, the arenas where the Feria, the annual bull fight festival, takes place each August.  This impressive building is located on Avenue Emile Claparede, a little way from the centre of town.

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Bull fighting has a history in Beziers which pre-dates the opening of the arenas in 1897, no doubt having been introduced from Spain.  Before this present structure was opened, there had been a number of temporary and makeshift arenas in Beziers.  In the above picture you can see some of my fellow visitors, waiting for our guide to arrive.  At the time of my visit, the Feria had only recently taken place, so the posters were still all in place.

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Once our guide had unlocked the enormous gates and let us in, he explained a little about the building.  The outside walls are made from stone and brick, and the internal structure for the tiers is made from reinforced concrete. The diameter of the building is 107 metres and it can seat up to 15,000 spectators.  With that information we set off to explore the building.

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A number of plaques lined the corridor we walked along.  The first reminded us that from 1898 onwards several famous French composers created works under the impulse of Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes, a patron of the arts from Beziers.

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The symbols on the tiles are the branding marks of the various manades, the farms which raise the bulls.

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The plaque below commemorates a prize which had been awarded to the Guardiola ranch, for their bulls.

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We finally came to the end of the tunnel, and into the light:

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Standing inside this huge arena is awe-inspiring to say the least.  The pictures below don’t really manage to convey the sheer scale of the place!

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We walked across the arena to the toril, where the bulls and the toreadors enter the ring.  Our guide took us behind the scenes!  Here’s a good look at the underside of the tiers:

This is what a changing room of one of the bull fighters looks like – stark and spartan:

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Apparently there is also a chapel on site, where the fighters pray before going out into the arena, but we couldn’t see that.

Our guide explained that the arena is used throughout the year by the Beziers bull fighting club for training.  He showed us two contraptions used by the aspiring bull fighters to practice their skills.  The first is for working practising with the fabric, which does not have to be red, apparently it’s the movement of the fabric which irritates the bull.

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The second contraption is for practising with a wooden sword.

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At that point our guide also explained a fundamental difference between the bulls used in the Corrida, and those used for the Course Camarguaise. The horns of the bulls which appear in the Corrida point forwards, at the toreador, whereas the Camarguaise bulls’ horns point upwards.  If you have been following this blog for some time you may remember my article about bull fighting in the Camargue.  If you want to read it, this link will take you there.

We then looked at the area where the bulls enter the arena, carefully separated from any other animals or humans.

On we went, to the platform above the toril, where an orchestra is usually placed to entertain the spectators in between fights.  From there I got a good picture of the prized seats, the boxes, right at the top of the arena.

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That’s where we were headed next, so we went down again, into the ring, and across to the other side.

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The sign below indicated that we were going in the direction of the boxes.  Vomitoire is the name of the wide corridors, which allow lots of people to enter and exit quickly.  I imagine that the word has Latin roots!  And no, it’s not a place where the Romans would have vomited

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The staircase up to the boxes was quite something, especially if you looked down from the top:

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Finally, we had reached the boxes.  Our reward for climbing all those steps was a most amazing view:

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The seating inside the boxes was not all that much more comfortable, but the big difference was cover and shade!!  A Corrida lasts two and a half hours, and in the blazing sun that could be uncomfortable!!

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After a good look around the boxes, we descended the stairs and headed down some more corridors – it felt a little like being in a rabbit warren.

We emerged into the sunlight once more, and made our way to the very top of the arena.  Another great opportunity for a panorama shot!!

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From the top we could see outside the arena, and the views of Beziers were amazing.  When the arena was first built, it would have been mostly surrounded by fields!

What about the bulls, you may ask.  In a Corrida the bulls always come to a sticky end. Each fight lasts for 15 minutes, and at the end of it the bull is usually dead.  I must admit that I have a difficult time with the idea of killing as a sport or an art, but I respect other people’s views on that.

Now, going back to the composers that I mentioned earlier and the patron of the arts, Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes, there is a period in the history of the arenas, when they were famous for other things apart from bull fighting!  Beauxhostes realised very early on that the acoustics inside the arena were superb, and ideal for outdoor opera!  He persuaded his friend Camille Saint-Saëns (remember the Carnival of the Animals?) to cooperate.  Legend has it that Saint-Saëns was totally against bull fights, and that he was only persuaded to participate after having listened to the acoustics whilst wearing a blindfold, thus not knowing where he was.  Whatever the truth, in 1898 Saint-Saëns premiered the precursor to his opera Dejanire in Bezier.  This marked the start of a very successful opera festival, which took place annually until 1929, and for which people travelled from all over France.

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If you are interested in visiting the arena yourself, the guided visits take place during July and August.  Bull fights take place during the Feria, which takes place during the second week in August each year.

Fabulous flamenco

The Beziers municipal theatre sits proudly at the upper end of the Allees Paul Riquet.  The Allees is a magnificent public space, a long, wide space, lined by huge plane trees, and bordered by impressive buildings.  The theatre was opened in 1844, when Beziers was in its “golden age”, a time of prosperity and expansion.  The building, with its classic, Greek-style façade, was designed by the architect Charles Isabelle.

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The auditorium is in the Italian style, with several tiers of U-shaped balconies stacked on top of one another.  It has been written that the municipal theatre in Beziers is unique in France, in that it has preserved its original decorative scheme throughout.  I had long admired the building from the outside, but until recently I had not seen any of the interior.

All that changed when I booked to go and see a performance of &dentidades with the dancer Pastora Galvan.  Walking along the Allees after sunset, with the theatre brightly lit up, I was not on my own – there were many other people going to see the same show!

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The entrance foyer was crowded with people and there were columns everywhere.  A sign indicated directions to the various parts of the theatre.  French theatres have a different seat numbering system to the ones I have encountered in other countries.  They start with seat one in the centre of the row, and work outwards, with even numbers running to the left and uneven to the right, as you face the stage.  The first time I went to a theatre in France, I was a little anxious as I thought I did not have a seat next to my companion.  I wasn’t sure that my French was up to persuading the person sitting between us to change seats with me :)!  Anyhow, in Beziers we had seats Y07 and Y09, towards the centre of the last row in the first balcony (there are three).  Luckily there was an usher to help me find the seats!

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On the first floor of the theatre, an enormous, colonnaded room awaited patrons, perhaps for drinks during the interval?

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The wooden staircase climbed to almost vertiginous heights!

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And then I was inside the auditorium!!  A riot of colour and painted ornamentation surrounded me, presided over by a huge, sparkling crystal chandelier.

One website has it that the original chandelier was removed by the Germans during the war, and melted down, and another site was lamenting the removal of the ornate stage curtain.  I’ll try and find the official book on the history of the theatre to verify those details, and perhaps I’ll be able to go on a “behind-the-scenes” tour at some point.

The theatre management had thought that we would all be feeling a little chilly, and so the heating was turned on full blast.  I managed to remove many layers and got nicely comfortable in my seat!

When the curtain opened there were a couple of chairs on the left, and a clothes rail, a coat rack, a small table and a chair on the right of the stage.  Two guitarists took their seats on the chairs, and three men stood beside them – two of them singers, and the third in charge of clapping.  In flamenco there is a lot of rhythmic clapping, and it’s quite an art to get it right. After a few minutes, Pastora Galvan appeared on stage, in a very elaborate white dress, and sat at the little table by the side of the stage, listening to the musicians for a little while.  When she started her performance, it was with slow movements, gracefully moving the train of her dress as she turned.  After that first dance she changed her costume and style of dancing, and continued to do this for each subsequent dance.

The idea behind the show was to pay tribute to seven heroes of the flamenco universe: Matilde Coral, Manuela Carrasco, Milagros Mengíbar, Loli Flores, Carmen Ledesma, Eugenia de los Reyes and Jose Galvan, the last two being Pastora Galvan’s mother and father.

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The whole show was brilliantly conceived and executed, and highly enjoyable to watch!  The costumes were sumptuous and the music was very emotionally charged.  I don’t know enough about flamenco to be able to fully appreciate the gestures and moves, the texts of the songs etc, but what I watched left me awestruck.

My camera did not work too well with the low light levels inside the theatre, so my pictures and videos of the show are not as sharp and clear as I would have wanted.  All the same I hope that they’ll give you a taste of what it was like!

And here are three videos of &dentidades (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to watch them):

The videos will give you an idea of what it was like, but nothing beats seeing a live performance.  If you are tempted to visit the area and see a show, drop me a line, I’ll try and help!!

Fairground nostalgia

In Beziers (Languedoc) there is a very pleasant park in the heart of town, called Plateau des Poetes.  I’ve written about this park in some detail in an earlier post, which you can find here.  My most recent visit was prompted by a little flyer I picked up somewhere.

Beziers had a wonderfully prosperous time during the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.  Someone thought that it would be a good idea to capture some of the spirit of the fairgrounds of that era, and so the whole summer long a small fairground was installed in the middle of the park for the Fete 1900.  The fairground was essentially aimed at families with children, but I didn’t care!  I was a child once… 🙂

I went along one beautifully sunny afternoon in late August, when not many people were about.  The families with children were probably all getting everything ready for the rentree, when it’s time for the children to go back to school.

When I was little I used to love going on the swingboats, but that afternoon they were deserted, and those boats were too small for me to have a go on 😦

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To one side of the fairground was the circular basin with a statue of a little boy, holding a rather large fish.

On the other side of the fairground rides was a kiosk, which sold drinks, snacks and ice creams, and there were tables and chairs in the shade of the ancient trees.  Guess what?  I just had to have an ice cream!! 🙂

After my ice cream break, I took a little walk to explore the rest of the park.  The park is built on a hillside, and on that hillside there is a monumental statue, which dominates the lower part of the park.  Near the fairground, the back of the uppermost part of the statue was visible:

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I am not sure if that face is benevolent – what do you think?  From the bottom of the hill you get a great view of the statue – if you crane your neck a little!

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In lower part of the park there are a series of ponds, populated by all kinds of animals.

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The swan and the goose seemed to have something going between them, they were floating alongside one another all the time I watched them!  Could it be that this little creature below is one of theirs??  What, you don’t think so?? 😀

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Just as I was about to leave the park, I noticed what looked like black lumps in amongst the foliage of some of the plane trees.  Closer inspection revealed the black lumps to be peacocks and peahens.  The males had lost their tail feathers, and all of the birds were high up in the branches, resting or grooming themselves.  I’ll have to go back in the spring, when the males will be strutting about the lawns in their full regalia!!

What a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon!  I do hope that the Fete 1900 will be repeated again next year!

A little brown bag…

…arrived on my doorstep last year, a present from my friend Carole.  In the bag were the makings of Chocolat Chaud a l’Ancienne or old-fashioned hot chocolate!  Carole shares my passion for all things chocolate, and she has discovered a cafe in Beziers (Le Mathi’s), not far from the Theatre Municipal on the Allees Paul Riquet, which serves old-fashioned hot chocolate amongst a myriad of treats.  The little brown bag contained a copy of the recipe Carole uses to make her own hot chocolate, along with dark chocolate, cocoa powder, cinnamon and vanilla!  Just add milk… 🙂

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Before I made my own hot chocolate, I had to go on an expedition in Beziers, to taste the chocolat chaud a l’ancienne at Le Mathi’s.  The things I do for the sake of writing this blog!! 😀

Cafe Le Mathis in Beziers

Cafe Le Mathi’s in Beziers

Le Mathi’s is one of a number of cafes which front onto Beziers’ main square – in the summer there is a large terrace outside, but as it was still a little too cold for the terrace, I was cozy inside.  Somehow I cannot imagine myself having hot chocolate in the summer.

Inside Le Mathis in Beziers

Inside Le Mathi’s in Beziers

The patrons of Le Mathi’s seem to be an eclectic bunch:  groups of older ladies, office workers, students, perhaps the odd travelling salesman?  The menu board lists the old-fashioned hot chocolate right at the top!  There is also traditional hot chocolate and Viennese hot chocolate, along with eight different kinds of cafe and 20 different kinds of tea!!  And there are cakes!!

The menu at Le Mathis

The menu at Le Mathi’s

I’d come to try the old-fashioned hot chocolate, but the Viennese hot chocolate intrigued me.  I decided to try the Viennese hot chocolate, and my companion ordered the old-fashioned hot chocolate  Here’s what they looked like:

Now I know – Viennese hot chocolate has a whole lot of whipped cream on top!! I guess I should have thought of that!! 🙂  The old-fashioned hot chocolate was thick and rich – perfectly delicious!  We didn’t really need any cakes to go with the chocolate, but what the h*** –  you only live once!

And then the hot chocolates were finished, and it was time to go for a walk!

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Here are some of the beautiful buildings I saw on my walk:

Some time later, at home, I tried out Carole’s Recipe for old-fashioned hot chocolate.  To the ingredients Carole had already presented me with, I added milk, cream, and brown sugar.  Here is the picture again:

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

The milk and cream were put into a saucepan along with the vanilla and cinnamon and some water.  I deviated from the recipe somewhat, in that I mixed the sugar and cocoa powder to a paste, with some of the milk.  That paste dissolved beautifully in the milk.

A stage during the making old-fashioned hot chocolate

A stage during the making of old-fashioned hot chocolate

After the paste of cocoa and sugar was added to the milk mixture, the whole was brought to the boil, and then the chopped chocolate was added.  The preparation was then kept at a simmer for 15 minutes, before being strained to remove any lumps and spices.  The recipe says that the hot chocolate will taste better if prepared in advance and re-heated.  I couldn’t wait that long though!! 🙂  It was delicious, rich and thick – a chocoholic’s dream!!

Chocolat chaud epice a l’ancienne

Chocolat chaud epice a l’ancienne

The recipe makes a fair amount of hot chocolate, so you will have some left over.  I’ll let you be the judge if it is better the day after.

The next time I prepare the recipe I might reduce the amount of chocolate a little, and perhaps add some more sugar, but I’ll definitely be making it again!!  Thank you so much, Carole!!