Time with the Swiss

One grey Saturday morning this spring, I went to meet up with a group of like-minded people for a guided visit on Beziers’ architectural history.  The history of that town has fascinated me for a long time – it goes back so far, and there are so many different layers to discover.  The theme of the guided visit was Chez les Suisses, and very appropriately the visit started on a square just off Boulevard de Geneve.  The boulevard was given its name around 1904 after the town councillors of Beziers had had a particularly cordial welcome on a visit to Geneva.

During the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, there were strong commercial ties between Switzerland and Languedoc.  The Swiss would buy wines from the region, and in turn would sell grain.  Swiss merchants opened offices in Beziers, and built themselves sumptuous mansions with their profits.

On our visit we stopped at several of these mansions.  The first one we saw was built by Godefroid Meyer on Boulevard de la Liberte between 1926 and 1928 in a very pure art deco style.

We were fortunate in that the owner of this beautiful white house was one of the guides – there were several of them, each with a different field of expertise.  He had brought several photographs of the interior of the house to show to the group.  The interior looked as stunning as the outside. In fact, my pictures above do not do the building justice, it really has to be seen in person!

The next mansion we saw used to belong to the Bühler family.  Traugott Bühler bought an enormous plot of around 4500 square metres along Avenue Saint-Saëns, and proceeded to build not one but two mansions.  The one on the corner was used as offices, and is a relatively modest brick and stone confection with a mansard roof.

The initial of the family name still decorates the stonework at roof level, and the railings on the balcony just below hint at art nouveau.

The big mansion next door, completed in 1903, was designed by the architects Leopold and Louis Carlier, well-known architects from Montpellier.  The locals called it the Chateau Bühler, on account of its size and air of sumptuousness.

Both of the Bühler mansions have been split into apartments, and a large part of the park has been sold off and covered with very nondescript apartment buildings.  The facade of the chateau as well as the monumental wrought iron gates and railings have listed building status!  Here is one of our guides in front of the gates:

The last of the mansions we visited, was built for Otto Müller, another rich merchant of Swiss extraction, who, if I remember correctly, had married one of the Bühler daughters – or was she a Meyer?  The architect was Leopold Carlier.  He designed the mansion in the Flemish style, with gables and turrets.  The building was finished in 1870.  At the time there were few other buildings surrounding it.

You can still see Otto Müller’s initials on the monumental chimney:

In 1916, the mansion was bought by the brothers Guy.  In 1918, they engaged a renowned landscape architect to turn the land surrounding the house into a park.  They also commissioned original artwork from the local sculptors Antonin Injalbert and Jean Magrou for the park.  Once the Guy brothers bought the house, the locals started to call it Villa Guy.  It retains that name to this day.

We were fortunate in that the current owners of Villa Guy allowed our group to visit the grounds – we got a very close look at the building and the park.  Villa Guy is today an exclusive Bed and Breakfast and function venue.

Here is a selection of photographs of the building and of the sculptures in the park:

Farthest from the house is the Neo-Moorish garden, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.  At the time of writing this post, the fountains should be tinkling again!

And thus ended a fascinating visit into Beziers’ past!

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

On rocky ground

It’s amazing what you can discover on walks around the villages in Languedoc! (I know that the area has now been renamed Occitanie, but I refuse to call it that!!)  A village which is full of interesting things to discover is Montouliers.  It is perched on a hill in the hinterland, not far from Bize Minervois and Argeliers.  Walk the narrow streets of the old part of the village up towards the chateau, and with a little imagination you could picture yourself transported back in time.

The narrow streets are paved with stones, a surface which is called calade.  Calade is a word that you’ll not find in a French dictionary – it has its roots in the old Gaulish word cal, meaning stone and height.  Calades were built using the materials to hand – stones which had been cleared from the fields to make them arable.  Skill was required so sort the stones and to place them, so that they would form a durable surface.  Mortar was not often used as that would have raised the cost.

Steps were built to shore up the steeper slopes and to allow humans and animals (donkeys and horses in the main) to walk up and down more easily.

In most villages, the calades disappeared with the advent of tarmac in the early 20th century, the old making room for the new.  However, in some villages you can still find calades.  I know of two small patches in Saint-Chinian.

Here are a few more images from Montouliers – along with the Calades, the exteriors of the houses in the old part of the village have also been carefully renovated!

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Dine at the Auberge

It has been nine years since I first met Sylvie and Claude Clapiers.  At the time, they had only just opened their restaurant, L’Auberge Vigneronne, in the tiny hamlet of La Bosque near Combejean.  Claude had retired from the police force, and Sylvie had always wanted to run a restaurant.  Claude’s parents were from La Bosque – they had vineyards there, and when it came to setting up the restaurant, they were very supportive.  An old farm building was converted to house the kitchen and dining room.

A former vineyard was turned into a car park.  A plot of land was cleared to house the bird enclosures.  Sylvie and Claude decided that they would raise all their own poultry:  chickens, geese, guinea fowl, turkeys and ducks.

They have made a name for themselves for roasting their poultry on a spit over an open fire.  In the winter, this is done in the big fireplace in the dining room, and it’s wonderful to watch.  For the summer months, Claude has a second fireplace outside, and it was there that I took the following picture:

The drive to La Bosque is along a sinuous road, winding up and up.  From a number of places along the way you have beautiful views!  When you get out of the car at La Bosque, you might notice the quiet calm all around you – only the sound of birds is usually heard!

My brother is visiting right now, and he badly wanted to go back to L’Auberge Vigneronne!  I was more than happy to oblige 🙂  It had been a little while since I’d been to eat there myself.  So on a balmy evening we sat outside on the terrace at La Bosque, with the sun setting behind us, enjoying a glass of delicious, chilled rose, whilst waiting for our starters to be prepared.

The food at L’Auberge Vigneronne is very unpretentious and down-to-earth.  Sylvie wanted to serve Cuisine de Grandmere in her restaurant, updated versions of her grandmother’s cooking, and she’s been doing just that with great success since she opened the restaurant!

The menu is very straightforward:  four courses for 22 Euros or five courses for 27 Euros, with a choice of dishes for each course (excepting the dessert).  There were four of us, and we decided to have two menus with four courses and two menus with five courses, so we could all have a taste of the fish course.

These were the starters:

Salade du Jaur

A salad with smoked trout, both hot and cold smoked.

Aumoniere de Chevre Chaud

A crispy parcel filled with goat’s cheese and leeks.

Salade Auberge

Gizzards, bougnette (a kind of large dumpling, made from stale bread, pork, eggs and seasonings) and melsat (a kind of sausage made with the same ingredients as the bougnette), all regional specialities.

For the fish course we ordered the scallops in wild mushroom sauce.  They were perfectly cooked and utterly delicious!!

Scallops in wild mushroom sauce

My sister-in-law opted for osso bucco for her main course.  She loved every mouthful of it!

Veal Osso Bucco

The rest of us ordered the spit-roasted chicken! 🙂  The chicken arrived on a large platter, already cut into pieces, along with some more mushroom sauce.  On our plates were creamy courgettes, a toast with chicken liver pate, sauteed potatoes and green beans.

We did manage to eat all but one of the chicken pieces – it was very delicious, but we were getting full!!

As night started to fall, we attacked the cheese board! Claude had prepared a great selection of cheeses.  I had vowed to skip the cheese course, but my resolve weakened the moment the platter was placed on the table! 🙂

Cheese board at L’Auberge Vigneronne

Once we’d done justice to the cheese board, Sylvie served the dessert, which was a selection of three mini-desserts:  cherry clafoutis, chocolate mousse and pannacotta with blackcurrant sauce.

What a wonderful evening we had, and what delicious food we ate!  I’m so glad my brother suggested it!

L’Auberge Vigneronne is one of the few restaurants which is totally off the beaten track; most of its patrons live locally.  The restaurant is open on Fridays for dinner, on Saturdays for lunch and dinner, and on Sundays and bank holidays for lunch only.  Groups of 10 and more can be accommodated during the week.  Be sure to telephone to book your table on +33 467 893 411 or +33 670 704 513.

Down by the bay

The Mediterranean coastline has changed a good deal over the past few thousand years. A place where this can be seen rather well is Gruissan.  In Roman times, the topography would have been very different.  The Massif de la Clape nature reserve, and the Ile Saint Martin were islands, not at all connected to the mainland, but surrounded by the estuary of the Aude River.  The limestone rock, on which today stands the ruin of Gruissan castle, was probably just a bare rocky outcrop then.  Narbonne had a harbour, and the Roman ships would have sailed into the bay behind modern-day Gruissan.

All that changed, when the harbour gradually silted up, and the lagoons formed between Gruissan and Narbonne.  The Etang de Gruissan is on average 55 cm deep – great for the flamingos, which were notably absent the day I took the picture above! 🙂

In the Middle Ages, a fortified castle was built on the limestone outcrop, to provide shelter from marauding pirates!  Houses were built at the foot of the castle, with the streets surrounding the rock in a circular pattern, which can still be seen today.

The sleepy fishing village turned into a major seaside resort during the course of the 20th century. Two marinas were constructed in the 1970’s, with space for 1650 boats!  All around the marinas, developments were built, to cater for the increasing number of visitors.

Unlike many seaside resorts, Gruissan is very much “open all year”.  Many people live there year round, and a good number of restaurants do NOT close down for the winter.  One such restaurant is called La Cranquette.  It is located in the old town, and specialises in seafood.   You can tell I went there before the trees started to leaf out!

Inside, the decor is somewhat eclectic!

Whilst the decor is somewhat important in a restaurant, the food is the star of the show!!  And the food in this restaurant was very good!!

All the food was very delicious and beautifully presented!  A feast for the eyes and the palate!

Afterwards, a walk along the beach was a must – out of season the beaches are often empty!

If you fancy a stay at Gruissan, have a look here and here! 🙂

More days out!

Fete 1900, Plateau des Poetes, Beziers – 1 May to 30 September 2017

Once more, there is an old-fashioned fairground in the gardens of the Plateau des Poetes in Beziers.  It’s a charming and nostalgic little fairground, recalling days gone by.  You can read my post about my visit to the fairground on a previous occasion here.

 Soapbox race, Saint-Chinian – 25 May 2017

This event promises to be highly enjoyable – have a look here for pictures from a previous race!  As before, the participants will be hurtling down the hill from the windmill to the market square, in their home-made contraptions!!

Les Natur’ailes, Narbonne Plage – 27 to 28 May 2017

This is an international festival of kite flying – two days of amazing creatures flying in the breeze at Narbonne Plage.  I wrote about this a few years ago – it was an enchanting day on the beach!  

Picnic with the wine makers, various locations, 3 – 5 June 2017

An initiative by the association of independent wine makers, this is a chance to visit a winery and participate in various activities such as guided walks, visits of the cellar, tastings etc.  You can find a list of local participants here.

Open day at La Petite Pepiniere, Caunes Minervois – 4 June 2017

La Petite Pepiniere has officially closed its doors as a plant nursery, however Gill Pound’s show garden is still as beautiful as ever.  This year, the open day is for raising awareness and funds for the association Languedoc Solidarité avec le Réfugies, which offers help and support to refugees in the area.  There will be food and a range of activities on a garden fete theme, as well as guided visits of the garden.

Randonne de Bacchus, Berlou – 4 June 2017

Another wine walk, this one at Berlou, is long established and always very popular.  The walk covers 8 km and there are 7 stops for food and wine!  You can find the programme here.

Fete de la Cerise, Mons la Trivalle – 5 June 2017

This is a local cherry fair which I have visited a number of times over the years.  It’s a lovely occasion to get your fill of cherries.  You may even get to take some home, and make a wonderful cherry clafoutis (flancake)?

 

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!