Splish splash

Where there’s fresh water there is life!  The Benedictine monks knew all about the importance of water when they founded their monastery, and with it the village of Saint-Chinian, near the banks of the Vernazobres river in the 9th century!

They harnessed the power of the water to drive mills, and built a canal to irrigate the fields and gardens.  The Vernazobres river still flows through Saint-Chinian, and although the water mills are long gone, the canal which irrigates the gardens still exists!

When the summer weather has arrived and the cicadas sing their seemingly endless songs in the languid heat, there’s nothing more inviting than a refreshing dip in the water. The river is perfect for that!

Upstream, just a little outside the village, is an area called Les Platanettes where the water tumbles over the rocks and flows through a series of pools.

The area is shaded by mature plane trees  (platane is French for plane tree) and there’s usually a light breeze – heaven on a hot day!!

A few years ago, picnic tables were installed at Les Platanettes, and there’s plenty of space if those are already occupied when you get there.

There are more river pools farther upstream from Les Platanettes, just walk along between the river and the vineyards, and you’ll get there!

Saint-Chinian also has a semi-olympic swimming pool, for those who prefer to do some serious swimming!

At Cessenon, the Vernazobres river flows into the Orb, a river which ends its journey at Valras plage.  Up-river from Cessenon is the picturesque town of Roquebrun:

The Orb makes a sort of right turn at Roquebrun – you get a great view of that from the Mediterranean garden just below the ruined tower at the top of the village:

The pebble beach on the opposite side of the river is very popular and the plane trees provide welcome shade.  To the right of the bridge (in the picture above) is a canoe and kayak base – there’s great canoeing and kayaking all along the river Orb!  You can rent a canoe or kayak, and once all the formalities are dealt with and you’ve been kitted out, you’ll be driven farther up the river so you can just paddle your way down to where you started from.

There are several other locations along the river for renting canoes and kayaks.  My favourite is in Reals, where the rapids are used for competitions!

Those rapids are downriver from the boatyard in Reals.  They are not for the use of an amateur like myself – I prefer calmer water, even though that might mean more paddling!! 🙂

On the way to the base in Reals there is an exhilarating water slide!

Cessenon, which is located halfway between Saint-Chinian and Roquebrun, is also on the river Orb.  The pebble beach there is near the old suspension bridge – very picturesque!

The Golfe du Lion is famous for its sandy beaches – the nearest beaches for me are at Valras Plage and Vendres Plage. In the summer it can be quite busy, but there’s plenty of space for everyone!

My favourite time of day at the beach is late in the afternoon, when there are fewer people and the heat is less intense!

With all this glorious weather it’s time I took a little blogging vacation – but I promise I’ll be back!! And don’t forget: I’ll be here if you need any help with booking accommodation – you can always drop me a line!  Enjoy your summer!!

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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!

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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!

Don’t let the sun go down on me…

After all the excesses of the holidays it’s time for a walk to get rid of some of those extra calories!  How about a walk along the Canal du Midi?  I promise you it’ll not be too strenuous, and there won’t be any steep inclines!

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A walk along the Canal du Midi puts you in the footsteps of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a native of Beziers, who had the vision and the tenacity to get the canal built.  As you walk, think about the people who built the canal – 12,000 “head”, men and women – with three women counted as one head – working away with only the most basic tools.  And yet they got the canal built from Toulouse to Agde in just 14 years, from 1667 to 1681.  240 km of canal, 20 to 24 m wide and about 2.5 m deep, with 64 locks (single, double, triple or quadruple), numerous bridges. a few viaducts and an enormous dam – all built entirely by hand!  A colossal undertaking, and even more impressive when you consider the times during which it was built!

Nowadays the Canal du Midi is mostly frequented by pleasure traffic, and its chief glory lies in the fact that its banks are lined by tens of thousands of mature trees.  Initially Riquet only planted trees to stabilise some of the raised banks overlooking the plains, using mostly willows because of their rapid growth.  Later, mulberry trees were planted along the canal, the leaves being used to feed silkworms.  When silk production came to an end, Italian poplar trees replaced the mulberry trees as a productive crop, and it was only during the First Empire that the plane trees took over as the dominant tree along the canal.

Today the plane trees are becoming the victims of globalization:  towards the end of the second world war a fungus was imported from North America, brought to France on wood used to make ammunition crates.  The canker stain of the plane tree is a microscopic fungus which develops inside the tree and blocks its sap channels, thus eventually killing the host plant.  So far no cure has been found, and the spores of the fungus can be distributed by air and water.  Over the years the fungus has slowly spread across southern France, and it is estimated that more than 40,000 plane trees along the Canal du Midi will have to be felled and re-planted over the coming years.  They will be replaced by plane trees resistant to the fungus, as well as a host of other species such as ash and lime.  So the landscape along the canal will change, but think of it as an evolution – in some places the canal may look “naked” for a little while, but the new trees will soon grow!

If you want to know more about the replanting campaign along the banks of the Canal du Midi have a look here – your donations will help to ensure that the canal will look beautiful again!

I hope you’ve enjoyed our little walk – time for a cup of tea??

P.S.  Apologies to all e-mail subcribers to the blog – I accidentally hit the “publish” button while preparing this post, so you had a semi-finished version of this piece in your inbox on Monday.

Something sheepish

The sun was shining in St Chinian when I set out a few weeks ago for Boisset, a little village in the hills up above Minerve.  There had been rain the previous day and the forecast wasn’t good, but the sun was there all the same :-).  The reason for my visit was this:

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The Fete de la Rouge du Roussillon celebrates a rare breed of sheep, which is still being kept in Boisset.  It’s as good an excuse as any for a fete!  The approach to the village is breathtaking, as the road winds along hillsides and overlooks steep drops, but don’t worry, there’s enough space for cars to pass one another.  The fete was being held on a piece of land just next to the church, and for some reason the church at Boisset is a little distance outside the village.

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From my vantage point the village is not even visible, but it is there, hiding below on the right.

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I arrived just around midday, and the fete was already in full swing.  The first thing I did was to say hello to the Rouge du Roussillon sheep, since they were heading the bill.  And before you ask, the rouge in the name refers to the reddish-brown head and legs of the animals.

I’ve not been able to find out a great deal of information about this breed, as not a lot of history appears to be known.  It is certain that there have been “red” sheep in the Roussillon for around 200 years, and it is thought that the ancestors of the race might have been brought over from North Africa at some point. Up until about 30 years ago it was estimated that there were at least 10,000 “red” sheep between Narbonne and Perpignan and the hills beyond, but the decline of the population was rather rapid.  In 1981 the last shepherd to raise this race sold his flock, and ever since then conservation efforts have been made to preserve the breed, both in France and in Germany, by a number of dedicated individuals.  The Rouge du Roussillon is a multi-purpose race: it produces fine wool, and good meat.

As part of the fete there was a sheep shearing demonstration – and I managed to shoot a little video.  For e-mail subscribers, please go to the site to watch the video.

I am always amazed at just how calm sheep can be whilst they are being shorn.  They struggle a bit when they get on the platform, but once the shearing begins it’s almost as if they are putty in the shearer’s hands.  The lady who was doing the demonstration was being very careful and took her time.  Look out for her shoes, they are made of felt to avoid any injury to the animal.  The black stuff you see dabbed on is an antiseptic – the clippers must have nipped the sheep a little, despite the shearer’s careful attention.PICT7072

Back to more serious matters though – which of course means food! It was midday and I had to get something to eat before it all sold out!!  There were several stands, offering a variety of yummy things!  I had seen that a whole lamb was being spit-roasted at one stand when I arrived at the fete.  When I went to look for food it had pretty much all gone, but they were grilling other bits of meat.  Don’t you just love the contraption for turning the spit??  Unfortunately there was nobody pedaling!

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P1040921Then there was a stand which offered lamb sausage sandwiches (sausage in French bread), but since I’m not eating bread for the moment I gave that a miss.  The savoury cakes and such from a caterer in St Pons  had sold out, but there was the stand selling fish…

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…  well, you could buy the trout fresh out of the tank, take it home to cook and eat it, but for eating sur place they had prepared other things: ecrevisse (crayfish), which are like miniature lobsters, truitelle, which is very small trout, prepared like whitebait (the fish are about as long as your middle finger), and accras a la truite, deep-fried fritters made with trout rather than the usual salt cod.  No prizes for guessing what I had for lunch – of course the accras won! And I’m sorry, you won’t see a picture of what I had, as holding the camera with one greasy hand whilst holding the food in the other proved just too tricky :-)!

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After the food there was more entertainment!  First a visit to the church, which dates back to the 12th century! It is very small, but then a village of around 27 inhabitants would not need a very large church.

The church had certainly seen better days, but there are still two splendid crystal chandeliers, and you can tell from one of the altars that they must have been very proud of their church once.  But what’s with re-painting the statue of St Michael? Who ever thought that bright-red would be a good colour for his lips??  It seems to have faded a little since the last time I saw that statue a few years ago, but still!

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A couple of stands had been set up inside the church.  One was a historian who was selling the books he had researched of all the villages which had once belonged to the Seigneur of Minerve.  I couldn’t resist the book about Saint Jean de Minervois, and will be reading all about that in due course!  At the other stands paper things like cards and drawings were for sale.

Back outside the church there was a display of weapons and armour, which would have been used by knights in olden days.  The helmets were beautifully shiny, and the one which was not (i.e. slightly rusty) reminded me that originally these items were all made before the days of stainless steel, and required hours and hours of polishing to maintain them looking good.  And these replicas were made in the same way and I imagine require the same TLC!

There were guys who were going to give us a demonstration on how these “tools” were put to use…

…and there was music!

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I spent a most enjoyable afternoon at this small fete!  Make sure you go if you are in the area when it takes place next year.  Just one thing before I leave you – this sculpture stands by the church – any ideas what it might represent?

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Goodbye Boisset, til next year!

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Gently gliding by

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than by the waters of the Canal du Midi.  A little fete had been organised in Capestang by the tourist office a couple of weeks ago, and since the weather was perfect I couldn’t miss it!  One of the main attractions was a replica of a post barge from 1818, offering a glimpse of horse-drawn transport from a bygone age.

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Le Cairol was moored up in harbour when I got there, and Robert Mornet, the man behind the construction of the boat, welcomed us aboard for a brief tour.  It soon became evident that travel in the early 19th century was not particularly comfortable – the main room of the boat would house 30 passengers, and there was only one toilet on board! In the salon next door, those who had more money could travel in a little more comfort, but I imagine that it was not in the lap of luxury.

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The post barges were put into service by the administration of the Canal du Midi when it was first opened in 1681, and in the early days passengers got off one boat and onto the next one at each lock, so as not to waste time and water by going through the locks.  Later on the service got somewhat faster and from 1834 the express service took only 36 hours to cover the 240km between Sete and Toulouse.  At its peak, the barges transported 100,000 passengers annually, but with the advent of the railways, passenger numbers declined and the last post barge sailed in 1858.  Except in the records, no trace of these boats remained and so in 2007 Robert Mornet started to recreate a barge from plans found in the archives.  You can find out a little more about the barge and its construction here.

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One thing to remember is that the barges were strictly for transport – no food was served, and passengers could not sleep on board.  For eating and sleeping there were auberges along the canal (see my earlier post about the Musee du Bitterois for a picture of the reconstruction of the interior of one such auberge).  There would also have been places along the way where the horses were changed. Take a walk along the Canal du Midi from La Redorte towards Homps and you can still find the buildings of a former auberge at La Dinée.

But back to the fete though!  There was a roving band which consisted of four musicians, and they played some wonderful traditional music.  I  took a brief video for you (e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog page to view the videos on this post):

After a quick visit to the tourist office alongside the harbour, it was time for the post barge to start its horse-drawn voyage.  The horse was harnessed and attached to the boat by a long rope.  The horse didn’t seem to be all that willing at first, but it soon got into its stride, and the boat picked up the speed required to get it under the bridge.  The early bridges on the Canal du Midi were only wide enough for a barge to pass, the towpath didn’t pass under the bridge but around, and the bridge in Capestang is one such narrow bridge.  This meant that a boat had to have enough momentum to pass through.  The horse(s) would be unhooked just before the bridge, and attached again on the other side.  Later bridges were built wide enough so that the towpath would pass under the bridge.  The Cairol made it safely through, despite a bit of a to do with a pleasure boat 🙂

The design of the barge is ideal for the canal as it creates hardly any wash, so no disturbance to other boats nor the banks of the canal as it passes by.   After all this excitement I took a stroll into Capestang for a drink – I decided that the restaurant/bar on the banks of the canal was taking just a bit too much of an advantage of its location.  In the plane-tree-shaded square to the side of the towering gothic church in the centre of Capestang are two cafes and it was very pleasant sitting in the shade, sipping a drink and eating an ice cream :-).

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Back to the Canal and across the more modern bridge, where I caught another glimpse of the Cairol floating along, this time under motor power rather than horse power.

I made my way back to the port, past the marché des producteurs (farmers market), and while I was gone a small theatre set had been erected in front of the tourist office, and I was just in time for the show to begin.  “Tandem” was a mix of acrobatics, circus and music, very touchingly enacted by two performers who make up L’Appel du Pied theatre company, Geneviève Guillaud and Pierre-Alban Monfreux.

The show lasted for nearly an hour, and I did not feel the time pass – it was just delightful!  At the end they got a great big round of applause from everyone, and a well deserved rest, I hope!  I made my way back to the car and caught this lovely scene…

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