Party time!!

Today is France’s national holiday – a day which remembers the storming of the Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789, as well as the Fete of Unity (Fete de la Federation) on July 14, 1790.  All over France there will be celebrations of one kind or another.  In some of the very small villages it may be a communal meal with music and dancing on the day.  Larger villages can afford to spread the festivities over several days, and in many towns there will be fireworks and parades.

The most spectacular fireworks display takes place in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is beautifully showcased by truly amazing pyrotechnics.

The festivities in Saint-Chinian will go on for three days, with bands and parties.  Here is the programme:

The 14th of July is also the start of the French summer holidays, and in the spirit of that I will be taking a bit of a break.  I hope you will all have a wonderful summer, and I look forward to catching up with you again in August!  if anyone would like to write a guest post in my absence, please let me know!



Ship ahoy!

Have you ever been close up to a tall ship, or even been on board one??   I hadn’t but I had seen some on TV, all decked out with full sails.  Remember The Onedin Line??  For those of you too young to have seen it, The Onedin Line was a BBC television series in the 1970s, starring a three masted tall ship.

My chance to get up close and personal with tall ships came the week before Easter, when two of the world’s largest sailing ships dropped anchor at Sete, for a week’s stay.  Driving into Sete I could see the two vessels out at sea, with one of them heading for the entrance to the harbour – a pretty spectacular sight!  I found a car park near the railway station and made my way to the Quai du Maroc on foot.  If you have a look at a map of Sete you will see that there is no end of water – canals run in every direction and there are many bridges!  Just as I was approaching to cross the first bridge, a barrier came down to stop traffic and pedestrians, and then the whole bridge started to move! I’ve seen bridges lifting (think of Tower Bridge in London), but I’d not seen a bridge move like this – it pivoted on rollers in the centre, until the roadway was in line with the canal and ships could pass either side of it.


As soon as the bridge had resumed its normal position I could continue on my way to the Quai du Maroc, and as I rounded the last corner, there it was – the first of the two ships, in the process of mooring up!!  It was a pretty spectacular sight, one I won’t forget in a hurry.  Two tug boats were gently pushing this enormous ship very slowly against the wall of the quay – it almost appeared not to be moving at all, so slow was the progress.  The boat I was watching was the STS Kruzenshtern, whose website you can find here.  Of course the sails were not up, but from my vantage point it looked as though there were people up in the rigging.  A zoom with the camera proved that observation right – the sailors were busy furling the sails!!

Once the Kruzenshtern was docked up I went a little closer, only to be told by one of the stewards that the next boat was about to enter the harbour, and that the best vantage point would be from where I had just come.  As I was about to go off to find myself a spot on the edge of the quay to sit and wait, I saw a rather amusing thing: on a balcony, just across the quay from the Kruzenshtern, were a group of women with a sheet.  They were shouting across at the sailors, saying “Hey guys, this is how you do it!” whilst gathering up the sheet!  Everyone had a good laugh and they got a round of applause from the bystanders.

I then took up position further along the quay, and when the STS Sedov finally entered the harbour I was not disappointed – it was a highly atmospheric scene, reminiscent of JMW Turner’s painting of The Fighting Temeraire (with a bit of imagination!!).  A big tugboat was towing the Sedov, and as they got close enough to the quay a smaller boat took lines ashore, which were attached to bollards on the quay.  Then the winches on board the Sedov took over, slowly bringing the ship to its mooring.  The video below is a little lengthy and at times a bit shaky, but you’ll get the idea of just how amazing it is to watch a big ship like that.  Note: E-mail subscribers will have to go to the blog site in order to watch the video.

With both boats safely moored up I decided to get a little closer once more.  The sheer size of the boats was incredible, with the Sedov being 117 meters in length and the Kruzenshtern a little shorter at 114 meters!


The boats were due to allow visitors on board in the afternoon, so for now I admired them from dry land, and after a while I set off with my friends to find a restaurant for a spot of lunch.  We found a great little place on Rue Gaston Escarguel, which served very nice salads.  It looked as though it had not long been open, and on google maps street view, the little restaurant is shown in its previous incarnation, as a bakery :).

After the salads, a Cafe Gourmand hit just the right spot!

P1090385And then it was back to the boats once more!!

The queue at the Sedov was shorter, so after just a few minutes we were stepping on board the largest sailing ship in the world!

The enormous deck area was open to the public, and we caught glimpses of some interiors, such as the long corridors leading to the cabins.  You can get a virtual tour of both ships via their websites – it’s very interesting!   The Sedov was built by Krupp in Kiel, Germany, and launched in 1921, as a cargo carrier.  In 1945 the ship came under Russian ownership as part of war reparations.  The Sedov carries a crew of 54 as well as  148 cadets and trainees.  You’ll be able to find out more about the history of both ships, if you want to, on their websites.

Once we’d toured the Sedov, we joined the lengthening queue for the Kruzenshtern.  Interestingly enough, the two boats didn’t differ all that much.  The Kruzenshtern was built in 1926 in Bremerhaven, and passed into Russian ownership in 1946, again as part of German war reparations.  Today the ship belongs to the Baltic Academy of the Fisheries and is used as a training ship, carrying 70 crew and over 160 cadets.  The Kruzenshtern and the Sedov also carry paying guests, so if you fancy a trip on one of the world’s largest sailing ships, have a look at their websites.

Don’t get your feet wet!

World Wetlands Day occurs every year on February 2nd, the anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

The significance of all this for me?  In a magazine published by the Herault Department I noticed a little snippet about a guided visit at Domaine de la Plaine near Nissan-lez-Enserune (yes, there really IS a town called Nissan in southern France!!).  I’m always on the look-out for interesting outings, so I headed to Nissan with a group of friends and we met our guides in front of the Mairie on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.


The Mairie building has an incredible 1900 facade, improbably grand and glamorous, and a real surprise to find in such a small village.  Once everyone had arrived, we set off in a minibus and an assortment of cars, all provided either by the municipality or the Department.  As we got nearer the site I was very glad that they had provided the transport: some of the tracks along the way were incredibly muddy!!  🙂

Once we got to the site, our three guides introduced themselves:  Rodolphe Majourel from the Conseil General de l’Herault, Remi Jullien from the Conservatoire du Littoral, and John Holliday from the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude. It took me a little while to figure out the role of each, but I think I got it right:  The Conseil General owns the land at Domaine de la Plaine, 42 hectare in total; the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude is responsible for the management of the land; and the Conservatoire du Littoral has an advisory capacity.

That out of the way we went for a little walk to an abandoned bergerie or sheepfold on the property.  The bergerie is built on a small, raised part of the land, designed to keep the building (and the sheep) dry when the surrounding lands flooded.  Have a close look at the building; can you see the little niche above the door?  In olden days it would have held the statue of a saint, who would have protected the shepherd and his flock!  The niche is still used today, albeit by birds of prey; our guides told us this with authority – apparently the white traces on the wall are a giveaway.  Our guides were also very excited by stuff they found inside the bergerie:


These pellets are regurgitations from birds of prey, the ones near the fingertips are from an owl species, the larger ones in the palm from a raptor.  I had forgotten to take my note book and they were talking so fast that I cannot tell you the name of the birds, I’m sorry!  The presence of the pellets means that the birds regularly visit and hunt here, adding to the biodiversity of the site.  The bergerie was connected to dry land by a raised path, which is currently mostly overgrown.  Restoration of the path is on the list of things to do, as is the restoration of the building itself.


While we were talking, something was soaring overhead – too high up for my lens to capture it properly, and my knowledge of birds is too sketchy to be able to identify what was gliding up there in the sky.

The land at Domaine de la Plaine is almost at sea level, and the river Aude is only 1.8km away, so it’s easy to see how the land would flood reasonably frequently.  Because of the land lying so low the soil contains salt, which during periods of draught rises to the surface.   The salt presents a very challenging environment to plant life, but there are many plants which are adapted to these conditions.  The lands around Domaine de la Plaine were used in the main for two purposes:  grazing and making hay.  Sheep were very much a part of everyday life in the old days, and the village of Nissan had three herds of around 500 sheep each.  Today, the Conseil General is in partnership with a local shepherd, M. Henriques, who grazes his 900 sheep on land all across the lower plain of the Aude River, including Domaine de la Plaine.  He came to meet us at the bergerie to talk a little about his way of working.


In the main he moves his flock from pasture to pasture on a very regular basis, leaving the sheep on any patch for only a short period, to avoid overgrazing.  He also moves his sheep to the mountains in the summer months, into the high Pyrenees.


And of course he works his flock with the help of several dogs, two of which he had brought along for us to meet.  After all the explanations, we made our way back to where we started, to see some of his flock, waiting in a trailer for us.  On the way back our guides found some partridge droppings!! 🙂


The sheep were pretty excited to see us (who wouldn’t be? :-)) and they had a bit of a gambol around the meadow.  When the sheep and the dog had calmed down a little they even managed to graze a bit.

I learnt a lot during my time with the shepherd!!  Apparently you can tell the age of a sheep from their teeth – they have milk teeth to start with, and then the adult teeth appear in pairs.  From about four years old sheep can start to lose their front teeth, which in turn can lead to problems with feeding.  Sheep only have lower front teeth, and they cut against a bony plate in the upper jaw.  Most shepherds start sending their sheep to the abattoir after they are four years old.  Not M. Henriques, he prefers his sheep to have a long and happy life!


One of our group asked about the purpose of the crook at the end of a shepherd’s stick.


As soon as the question was asked, M. Henriques swung into action to demonstrate just what it was for!!



Look, no hands!!  Apparently this is a very good position for examining the hooves and the teeth!   After the “ladies” were once more safely in their trailer, we made our way back to Nissan for a slide show about the fauna and flora to be found at Domaine de la Plaine.  Winter is, of course, not the best time to visit, but it is such an interesting place that I’m sure I’ll be back!  And no, I didn’t get my feet wet!

Fall on foot

Autumn is a perfect time of year to go for walks – the weather is usually very good but not too hot, and there is plenty to catch your eye, from the first leaves turning colour to interesting critters, and more.  I went for a 9km hike with friends recently, starting from St Chinian, and thought I’d share this with you.

We started off along the D612, heading out of St Chinian in the direction of St Pons.


I imagine that the circle near the top of the gate must have held someone’s initials at some point!  Soon we left the main road and walked along the D176E7, and at Pierre Morte we left the road altogether, and followed a track through the vineyards.


The grapes in some vineyards had not been harvested yet, and they tasted deliciously sweet!  In some gardens the tomato plants were still in fine fettle too…

P1050022…and it wasn’t too long before I found my first “interesting critter”.


We kept walking towards Bouldoux, and just before you reach the village there is a little hut, with a bench alongside.  I’d come prepared: in my rucksack I had a thermos of tea, some plastic cups and a few biscuits.  Perfection, sipping a cup of tea whilst basking in the sun!  On we went after our brief rest, and there followed a bit of a climb, crossing the main road (D612) and up a little farther.

Another critter picture – this is the caterpillar of a swallowtail butterfly.  I have not been able to find out exactly what kind of swallowtail butterfly it will turn into, but I am sure that it will be beautiful!

After the climb the vegetation changed completely.  Whereas before we had been surrounded by vineyards almost as far as the eye coud see, we were now in more rugged terrain, with lots of brush and some woodland.  And here’s a little surprise:


According to my friends, the toaster has been there for some time and it just stands there all by itself.  Why, I thought, but then decided not to pursue that line of thinking :-).

The roses had produced a good crop of hips, and the olives were hanging heavy on the trees.  Around the next bend there was a large kennel, where hunting dogs are being kept.  They all started to howl as we came past, but none of them seemed vicious or hell-bent on chasing us.  They were safely behind fences and we kept a respectful distance.  Not long after we had to make a decision as the path forked.  We took the turn to the right, and I’m glad we did.

P1050099The flowering heather is just so beautiful!

And we came upon this quirky “potager” in the middle of nowhere.  Someone had lovingly created a vegetable garden in the wilderness, and decorated it with upturned terracotta pots.


All too soon we were approaching St Chinian, but not before we went through a grove of trees where the lichen were growing abundantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as luxuriant or large as these.


And then it was home and time for a drink and some rest!

The Moliere connection

A recent lunch date took me to Pezenas, and since I got there way too early I went for a walk, and took pictures :-).  Finding things to photograph in Pezenas is not difficult, but I did kind of restrict my output by using a telephoto lens on my camera, which meant that I was going to have to concentrate on details.  And details abound in Pezenas.  Take the balcony railings: it is as though someone had gone through an ironmonger’s catalogue and ordered one of each.  The variety is simply amazing!

The pictures above are only a fraction of what there is.  And then there is the stonework – exquisite and in most cases beautifully restored!

Pezenas came to prominence in the Middle Ages, when the town hosted the important Languedoc fairs, which attracted buyers and vendors from all over the Mediterranean basin.  Later the town hosted the assembly of the Languedoc states, a gathering of noblemen and bishops, for the purpose of setting taxes.

Many of the buildings in the ancient centre of the town have been renovated and some of their magnificent courtyards are open to the public.



Quirky details are there to be discovered:

Pezenas is famous for its doors,

and also for little pies called Petits Pates de Pezenas, a (to my mind) strange confection containing meat and dried fruit, savoury and sweet at the same time.  According to one legend the recipe has an English connection…


The church has some beautiful stained glass, and an impressive pipe organ case.

PICT3453 PICT3455And the streets are busy – with things to see, with people and with charm.

Finally I got to the restaurant – Hana Sushi is run by Yumi Matsui and serves traditional Japanese food.  The small room downstairs is decorated with traditional origami, Japanese textiles and lanterns, and upstairs you can dine sitting on the floor on tatami (rice straw) mats.  There is also a terrace on the first floor, and that’s where we ate.

To start with there was edamame (green soy beans), two types of Gyoza (dumplings) and a salad made from algue/seaweed.


IMG_8230To follow we had a selection of dishes:  Ebi Bento, which was with tempura prawns, Sushi Bento, a bowl of sushi rice with an assortment of raw fish and vegetables, and California Sushi (tuna, prawns, salmon and avocado).

It was all delicious and the food was very fresh – of course all important with raw fish!  I can’t tell you how hungry I feel writing this – I feel another trip to Pezenas coming on very soon!!

Oh, and the Moliere connection in the title??  During the mid 17th century, Moliere came to Pezenas several times with his group of actors, to perform his plays and to entertain the nobles of the Languedoc states.  It is said that many of the personages of the time found their way into Moliere’s plays.  There’s a lot more to the Moliere/Pezenas story, but that will be for another post :-)!

History unearthed

On my last visit to the Salin in Gruissan I came across a leaflet advertising guided visits of an archaeological site on the Ile St Martin at Gruissan.  I’m forever curious when it comes to things like that, so off I went recently to explore, as the site is only open for July and August.  Before going I tried to pinpoint the spot on an aerial view, without any success.  So I just drove past the Salin and hoped for the best :-).  After a few kilometers I noticed a small sign followed not much later by another, which directed me to where the site is.  I really didn’t know what to expect.




The guide was already at the far end with a group of people, but there was a waiting area with information panels and display cases, and some benches.

The items in the display cases were fascinating :



After a little while of waiting I decided to explore outside the site, since it looked as though there would be a little while before the start of the next guided visit.  And the exploration was well worthwhile, the views were fantastic!



P1040187Soon it was time to get back to the site for the tour.  Our guide gave us some of the history of the present site.  When a vineyard was ploughed up in 1986 a number of items were found and as a consequence the land was acquired by the municipality in exchange for another piece of land.  Preliminary explorations between 1988 and 1990 allowed the experts to date the occupation of the site between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, and in 1999 the real digging began.  It became apparent that there had been a number of buildings on the site. The archaeologists found evidence of stone walls and remains of a hypocaust, the Roman version of under-floor heating. The site was then closed until digging resumed again in 2011, and since then work has been carried out in June by a team of archaeologists helped by groups of students.


The guide explained that the site was probably part of the port administration – the sea would have been much closer 2000 years ago than it is now, and the Ile St Martin was really an island then.

We started off where the upper part of a mill had been found.


The upper part of the mill was in pretty good condition, but of the lower part only pieces had been found.  Nearby was the bottom part of a bread oven, so the archaeologists deducted that that particular building must have housed a bakery.  A few steps away the base and capital of a column had been found and left in-situ, and just in front of that were the remains of some kind of drain, amazingly intact.


IMG_8098Then we came to an area which our guide explained must have been a kind of store house as many amphorae had been found embedded in the floor.  Some of them had been broken whilst others remained pretty intact.  Next year the one which is still more or less in one piece will be filled with sand, to stop it collapsing when the earth around it is scraped away!



The next “find” was a drain, beautifully and solidly built nearly 2000 years ago!  In the second picture you can see the red colour of the soil near the drain.  Effectively the drain was for the balnea, the Roman bathhouse just next door



In the balnea the water was heated by a wood fire for the basins.  Our guide explained that it was assumed that the port was providing services for merchant seamen, who came ashore after lengthy voyages, and who needed a good bath!  That, he thought, also accounted for the sturdy drain close by, as there would have been lots of dirty water :-)!  One of the basins was round and the one next door rectangular, and the floors are still very smooth.

IMG_8105 IMG_8107Next we admired the remains of a dolium, a large terracotta storage container, much larger than the amphora we had seen earlier.  This particular dolium had unfortunately been broken during exploratory work, but an intact one had been extracted and shipped off somewhere (perhaps the local museum?).  The archaeological museum in Narbonne has several impressive examples on display.


The next part of the site had not been fully excavated, but according to the guide we were at first floor level rather than ground floor level, looking into what could have been a courtyard.  The stone wall had been beautifully made and an exploration this year in the far corner showed that the wall continued a fair way below soil level.


The well will be excavated over the next few years – it might yield a great many artifacts!  An almost identical well exists on the adjoining property, where it still supplies fresh water.

IMG_8117 IMG_8118The next interesting exhibit was a Roman rubbish heap – if you look closely you can see layers upon layers of debris, which accumulated over time.  IMG_8121

The channel might have been for drainage or supplying fresh water?


The square bricks were part of the hypocaust, the Roman underfloor heating, and apparently the hollow bricks were there to stop the others from bursting due to overheating!  This was where the second balnea of the complex was located.  Smaller than the first, and perhaps more for the officers than the sailors?


The rounded wall is not Roman but medieval and part of a storage silo.  The site was apparently inhabited quite late.


And finally we came to what is thought to have been the main building of the complex.  The walls were formed by huge stone blocks.


Internally the building was divided into four rooms by lathe-and-plaster walls.  The holes of the wooden uprights are still visible in the floor.


In one of the rooms a Roman weighing scale was found and there were many coins which were dug up, leading to speculations that this could have been some form of customs post.  The red colour of the earth floor could indicate that the building was destroyed by fire.


Now a few words on some of the finds in the display cases.  On the site a good number of pieces of terra sigillata have been found.  Terra sigillata is a kind of Roman pottery, which literally means “clay bearing little images”, and which was widely distributed throughout the Roman empire.  I adore the smooth, silky surface and the exquisite decoration on some of the pieces.  Apparently the maker’s mark is always stamped on the inside of the vessel




In the one box there was some other pottery, among them a very delicate bowl, the base of an amphora and also two oil lamps.  The larger one in the bottom right hand corner is very interesting as it is made of bone rather than the usual terracotta.  To my amazement the guide handed it round for everyone to have a good look, along with a few other delicate pieces of pottery.  It’s the first time that I’ve had anything this old in my hands!


Box number two contained other interesting bits found on the site.  In the top right hand corner is part of the mill stone (remember the mill at the beginning?).  Just to the left are four metal objects:  a hook and three nails.  The large encrusted piece is what a nail looks like before it is cleaned up.  On the very left is a piece of lead pipe and bottom left is an iron tool which was a kind of hoe.  The two small bits of bone are bovine teeth and I cannot for the life of me remember which animal the vertebrae came from.


So, if you are in the area during July and August, make the trip to Gruissan and see what the ground has yielded during the next season of excavations!

P.S.  Here’s a special thanks to Annie, my dedicated proof-reader, without whom you would have to endure many typos and errors!!  Thank you, Annie!