On Rue de Montmorency

This post is a continuation of my visit to Beziers during the recent European heritage days.  After my wonderful lunch at the market halls in Beziers, I made my way towards Beziers’ main square, the Allees Paul Riquet.  Along the way, a small hand-written sign drew my attention.  It led me a few steps along the Rue de Montmorency, to the Hotel de Montmorency, a building which I had walked past many times before.

Rue de Montmorency is in the heart of the mediaeval part of Beziers, and the building dates back to at least 1605, when it was recorded in a census as belonging to Guilhaume de Castilhon.  Guilhaume de Castilhon was secretary to the King of France, ordinary commissioner of wars, and secretary to Henri II de Montmorency.

Rue de Montmorency is incredibly narrow, so getting a picture of the entire facade was more or less impossible.

The property never belonged to the Montmorency family, but the connection between Castilhon and Montmorency must have been strong enough for the house and street to be named after the latter!   Guilhaume de Castilhon added to his property by buying neighbouring houses in 1609 and 1616.  His son, Jean de Castilhon added another part in 1646 and the ensemble of the buildings is thought to date from around that time.  The house passed through several hands over the course of the centuries.  During the latter part of the 19th century it was bought by a Mr Cavallier, who in 1877 “homogenised” the appearance of the building in the then fashionable neo-gothic and neo-renaissance styles.  In 1908 the house was bought by Achille Gaillard, a rich factory owner, who left it to his daughter Yvonne.  It stayed in the same family until 2009, when it was sold to a real estate company.

The doorway on Rue de Montmorency is big enough for a horse and cart!

I did some searching on the internet about the history of the building, and found that parts of it had been added to the register of listed buildings back in 1952.  In 2011, the entire building was placed on the register, which means that any alterations have to be approved by the French heritage commission.  I also found that in 2009, Carlos Carillo Gomez, a student from Barcelona university, did a survey of the building as part of his final year project.  If you’re interested in old buildings, the paper about the Hotel de Montmorency is very interesting!  It’s written in Catalan, and you can find it here.  The plans and elevation drawings, which are annexes to the paper can all be found here.  I found it absolutely fascinating!

Another source of fascinating information is the cadastre, a land registry plan, which shows the exact shape and size of a property.  The Hotel de Montmorency is No 32 at the centre of the picture, and the cadastre relates that the plot which the house stands on is 441 square metres in size.  With the courtyard in the centre being approximately 73 square metres, that leaves 368 square metres of floor space on each of floor of the building!

The only access to the house is via the door on the street, which gives into a vaulted passage.  The passage leads into the courtyard at the centre of the house.

As I stood in the courtyard looking around, a window on the first floor opened, and a young man waved and told me to come into the house.  It turned out that he worked for the owner of the real estate company, and he was in charge of the house during the visits.  The building was exactly as it had been left by the previous owners, nothing had been altered.  Electricity and water had been disconnected 10 years ago, so in some places it was a little too dark for good pictures.

Behind the large glass windows on the ground floor was a hallway with three doors.  The door straight ahead was decorative only, the one on the right led into a large room, and the one on the left led to a monumental staircase!  The windows on the half landing of the monumental staircase overlooked the street, and the stained glass windows were probably from the 1877 renovation project.

The handrail on the staircase was supported by finely sculpted brackets:

The ceiling of the staircase was incredibly ornate, and seemed to pre-date the 1877 renovations.

I’m adding a picture of the layout plan of the house – the one below is for the first floor.  The numbering of the rooms works in an anti-clockwise direction, my tour of that floor was in a clockwise direction.

On the first floor landing, the door straight ahead of me led into a rather gothic looking room.  The windows overlooking the courtyard were also made of stained glass, which gave the room a chapel-like appearance:

The ornate door surround at the opposite end of the room led into an enormous room.  At 41 square metres it was the second largest in the house (the largest room was on the ground floor).  The walls were lined with linenfold paneling and tapestry like fabric, and the ceiling was ‘a la francaise’, with closely spaced beams, which were beautifully painted.  The curtains matching the wall coverings were still in place, and there were two pieces of furniture:  a monumental glazed bookcase, which might have been made for this room during the 1877 renovations, and a somewhat incongruous looking 1920’s buffet.

To the right of the monumental fireplace, a door had been set into the panelling. It led into a little pantry of sorts, which communicated with a similar sort of pantry/closet off the room next door.  If you look at Gomez’s floor plan, this is marked (in Catalan) as ‘sala 4’ on the first floor.

Next door was ‘sala 5’, which might have been a bedroom once. It had two walk-in closets, one of which connected with the closet in ‘sala 4’.  One closet had a toilet and basin, the other one had just a basin.  The doors to the closets were rounded and were in the corners of the room along the same wall, so the bed could have been in the centre for ‘his and hers’ private facilities!!  The room had very elegant panelled walls, which were painted a creamy colour.  A beautiful white marble fireplace was on one wall.

Fireplace in ‘sala 4’ on the first floor

From this room there were two doors more or less next to one another – it was a little strange.  The one on the left led into a second staircase hall, which the architecture student denoted as a service staircase.  The door on the right, a little smaller than the one on the left, led diagonally across into the next wing of the building.  I have a theory for that: in one of the comments about the history of the building, an exterior spiral staircase was mentioned.  Such staircases could often be found on mediaeval and renaissance buildings.  The mention said that it was taken down in the 1990’s but I have a feeling that it might have been the 1890’s.  The staircase could have been located in the corner between two wings of the building, giving access to either wing.

The so called service staircase was almost as big as the monumental staircase at the entrance, and to my mind far too luxurious to be used by the servants alone.  I have a feeling that it might have been added during the 19th century renovations.

Continuing on the first floor, now in the wing opposite to where I entered the house, there were two bedrooms, and a bathroom which could be accessed from either of the bedrooms.

At the end of the bathroom, beyond the bidet was a separate WC.

Some details from the windows, these are espagnolettes, handles which are used to close the windows.

I moved on into the fourth wing, which was the one alongside the road.  A long corridor led to two bedrooms (dormitori 1 and dormitori 2), as well as to a bathroom and a separate WC.  One of the bedrooms had a niche with a wash basin and bidet.

The bathroom was done in the same kind of green tiles as the previous one.

Next came Sala 1, another large salon with a beautiful fireplace and elegant panelling.  The ceiling height in the rooms on the first floor was around 3.6 metres.

I imagine that this might have been used as a dining room once, since there was a kitchen right next door to it.

On the second floor the rooms were much simpler in their decorations; the ceiling height was lower, and the layout somewhat different from the floor below:

These are some of the fireplaces on the second floor.

And this is a picture of one of the two kitchens on this floor (cuina 2):

The monumental staircase ended on the second floor, but there was a smaller spiral staircase which continued upwards.

On the third floor awaited a little surprise – a loggia (covered terrace) which overlooked the courtyard – the views over the rooftops of Beziers were very interesting!!  If you scroll back up towards the beginning of this article, you’ll be able to see the loggia from the outside at the top of the building.

There was a great view down into the courtyard!

Next to the loggia was a bedroom which overlooked the street, and included an en-suite bathroom.  This suite was right above the monumental staircase.  And then there was another tiny spiral staircase which led up again!

The monumental staircase was in a tower-like building, and at the very top of the building was a room with windows on two sides – the views from here were spectacular!  It was very exciting to be able to visit this room!!

After this exciting discovery I went all the way down to the ground floor.  A few details from along the way:

On the ground floor was another suite of impressive rooms!

The light was not as good as upstairs, so it was difficult to take pictures.  The following are pictures of Sala 2, a room with dark brown wooden panelling and deep red wallpaper!

The kitchen on the ground floor was much larger than the ones on the upper floors.  It also did not seem to have been modernised very much – there was still the old fireplace to cook in/on!

The tiles were very pretty, perhaps dating to the 19th century or even earlier?

The cupboard next to the sink was topped with marble.

Sala 3 was a very elegant salon with grey/beige panelling and gold accents.  The fireplace was made from pink marble, and the ceiling was decorated with plasterwork rosettes. This was the largest room in the house!

Sala 4 was a more sombre room, with a wooden ceiling a la francaise, a dark marble fireplace, and exuberantly patterned wallpaper!

From Sala 4 the door led back into the entrance hall, and from there out into the courtyard!  But before we leave, here is a detail from the iron grilles at the bottom of the monumental staircase.  The stairs led down to the cellars which are under the building along the street – I was very curious, but I did not dare to turn that large key!

What an amazing visit – and just by chance!!  The Hotel de Montmorency is supposed to be transformed into a luxury hotel, just as they are planning to do with the former prison in Beziers.  I’m sure the real estate company who owns the building has been looking at ways to make it happen, and I wish them every success!

After this wonderful discovery I resumed my walk to the Allees Paul Riquet and towards my next destination, the Theatre des Varietes.  To be continued…

Underground treasures

Here is the continuation of the story of my visit to Beziers during this year’s European heritage days.  After visiting to the former prison (see article here), I went to the cathedral, which was right next door.  Behind the cathedral is the cloister, which was part of the archbishop’s palace complex, and there was the promise of a guided visit to show what lay beneath the cloister.

I was intrigued from the moment I had read the programme of the day’s events, and this visit was high on my list of priorities!  The weather was not great and it had started to rain when I entered the cathedral, so I was very glad that I could wait under cover for the start of the guided visit.  It also gave me a chance to have a good look around and to take some photographs!! 🙂

The evacuation plan of the cloister showed that it was not perfectly square as I had imagined it to be!

The cloister dates from the 14th century and was never completed – a first floor should have been built on top of the arcades.

The gothic vaulting has many sculpted decorations – some have survived remarkably well!

At some time in the past, the cloister served to exhibit a collection of stone fragments from antiquity.  Here’s what looked like at that time:

There’s something very romantic to black and white photographs, don’t you think?

The most beautiful pieces have since been transferred to the Musee Bitterois.  This is what it looks like today:

When the appointed time came for our visit, the guide took our group through a small door and down some stair.  I’d walked down those stairs before – they lead to the gardens on the terrace below the archbishop’s palace!

We skipped going to the archbishop’s garden, and instead walked down some more stairs, and then through a heavy wooden door.  Behind that door was a gallery of the same size as the cloister above, but with a barrel vaulted ceiling!!  This was the ‘cellar’ of the south gallery of the cloister.

The archaeology department of Beziers town discovered the underground galleries by chance in the 1950s.  They had been completely filled up with rubble and dirt, probably during the 19th century and perhaps before.

During the 1970s, the south gallery was entirely excavated, and work started on the west gallery.  The idea was that all four galleries would be excavated, and that the space would be turned into a lapidary museum, housing the stone collection that was on display in the cloister, as well as the stones which were found in the rubble during the excavations.

The west gallery was only partly excavated – work stopped in 1978 and was never resumed!

Our guide was an archaeologist who works for the town of Beziers.  The archaeology department is of course understaffed and underfunded – no surprises there! The available resources are fully occupied with doing preventative archaeology on the many building sites in the town!

Part of the western gallery was once a refectory for the monastery which was attached to the cathedral.  I’m not sure if it was part of the building which preceeded to the current cathedral – that was burnt down in 1209 during the cathar crusades!  If I understood correctly, the wall against which the ladder was leaning was the outside wall of the refectory.

Two diagrams showed the lay of the land:

The wooden ceiling in the western gallery was installed in preparation for the museum space.  The tubes for the wiring of the ceiling lights are all in place too!!

The stonework from the various building periods is remarkably well preserved.

So there you have it!  When you next visit the cloister in Beziers, you’ll know what lies beneath your feet!!

After that fascinating visit, I continued on my way to explore other interesting sites in Beziers!  I’ll write more soon about my discoveries!

In the clink!

Last Saturday I went to prison!  Yes, you read that right – I went to prison, in Beziers!!

If you’re starting to get concerned, remember that in my last post I mentioned that I was planning to explore some of Beziers’s lesser known places during the European heritage days! 🙂

The weather was grim.  Heavy rain had been forecast for the weekend, but I decided to go out anyhow!  Dressed in a showerproof jacket, and umbrella in hand I explored.  What I was able to visit was amazing and exceeded all my expectations!!  I managed to pack in a lot, so this is the first of a series of blog posts on the places I visited during my day in Beziers.

And yes, I went to prison in Beziers – the old prison, which is next to the cathedral, and which was closed down ten years ago!!

As you approach Beziers from across the river, the old prison is very visible as it sits at the top of the hill, with the cathedral next door.  But because it’s built with the same kind of stone as the cathedral, and because it has a crenelated tower on one side, it looks from afar as though all the buildings belong together.  Not altogether far-fetched – on the site of the prison were buildings which at one point belonged to the archbishopric of Beziers, housing clerics until the French Revolution.  These buildings were demolished to make way for the prison!

Building work started in 1850 and lasted until 1857.  The building site was on the side of a very steep hill, so it could not have been easy to build.  Only in 1867 did the prisoners and staff move in.  The prison closed down in 2009, when a new facility opened on the outskirts of Beziers.  Here is an aerial shot from google maps which shows the T-shaped building of the old prison, with another building just north of it.

A curtain wall encloses the yard in front of the prison – to the right of the entrance, visitors would have been waiting on visiting days; the yard on the left had a large gate which allowed vehicle access to the outside world.  It was also where the guillotine was located!  The last execution took place in Beziers in 1949!!

The door we entered through had a kind of cat-flap in it!  Might cats have been allowed in without a pass, as long as they helped keep the rodent population in check??

Just Inside the building was the reception area, where prisoners would be “processed” before being taken to their cells.  It was rather cramped for our group of 20, so taking pictures was not possible.  The room in the picture below was for prison visits.  One wall had been decorated to make the families of the prisoners feel more at ease.  I wonder how that would have worked, since they would have been sitting with their backs to that wall.

This is where people would have been able to talk but not touch!  Comfort was not of prime consideration!!

Through another set of doors and we were in the prison proper.  Three floors of cells were arranged around a central light well.

In case you are wondering, the netting is there to stop people from jumping down!

Each cell had a vaulted ceiling and measured about 10 – 12 square metres.  There were 56 cells, each housing two to three (and at times even four) prisoners.  Nothing has been done to the prison since the last prisoners left in 2009 – what you see in the pictures is what it was like when the inmates would have last been there!

The cells had toilets and wash basins, some of them also had showers, but all of them had minimum privacy!  The prisoners would have been in their cells most of the day, but there were some physical activities:  on the lowest level of the prison there were four wedge-shaped yards, each with high walls and covered with steel netting – there was no escaping.  Can you magine the boredom of walking around the edge of this yard day after day??

There was also a gym:

and a library:

Some of the prisoners were allowed to work in the kitchen – the kitchen knives were counted after each session!!

Those who mis-behaved could be locked up in very small spaces!

Wooden stairs connected the three levels.  I was very glad when we made our way back up!
As we left the prison we walked along a corridor in the building in front of the prison proper – the view from a window along the corridor showed the drop outside the windows of the cells!

Of course, there was some barbed wire too!!

We left via the garage and the gate by which the prisoner transport vans would have passed.  I was very glad to be outside again!!

This was probably the last time that the prison will be open to the public in its current state.  The building has been sold and planning is underway for it to be turned into a luxury hotel!  Pass the champagne, darling! 🙂

Watch out for next week’s post, which will continue my story of my visit to Beziers!

And lastly, if you are still wondering about the title of this post, “clink” is a colloquial term, referring to a jail or prison.  It comes from the Clink prison in London – Wikipedia has all the information here.

For badge holders only – part 2

Welcome to Part Two of our guided walk around Montpellier – for those who missed Part One, you can find it here.

At the end of last week’s post, we were on the corner of Rue de la Coquille, where we were admiring the most amazing architectural feature!

Xavier Laurent, our guide, continued our walk towards Rue Foch and its focal point, Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe.  On the way there, we passed in front of the Palais de Justice, the central court-house.

The Palais de Justice translates literally (as you may have guessed) as “Palace of Justice”.  It certainly is a palatial building and it is definitely designed to impress!  A long flight of stone steps leads up to a huge portico of Corinthian columns, surmounted by a very ornate pediment.  On either side of the portico, wings of the building project forward, creating a courtyard, which is closed to the street by iron railings.

In the days when Montpellier was a fortified city, there was a gate in the place where the Arc de Triomphe stands today.  The Arc stands at one of the highest points of Montpellier.  Naturally, it is not as big as the one in Paris, but it is impressive all the same!

If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the heads of some people on the top of the Arc. Our group was larger than the maximum number allowed up there, so our guide split us into two groups.

The decorative reliefs are in homage of Louis XIV, glorifying his achievements during his long reign of 72 years!

To begin with, I thought the two faces of the Arc had identical reliefs, but on closer inspection they turned out to be different.  The reliefs in the pictures above are the ones celebrating the battle victories.  The two medallions in the pictures below celebrate the construction of the Canal du Midi, and the victory of Louis XIV over the French Protestants following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  The central figure in the second medallion used to hold a cross in its raised hand, but that was knocked off some time ago!

The next medallion shows Louis XIV as Hercules, crowned by Victory, and the one below that remembers the capture of the town of Namur in Belgium by French troops.

After I took all those pictures, it was the turn of our part of the group to climb the 88 steps to the terrace atop the Arc!

Xavier, our guide, had told us that the views were worth the climb, and he had not promised too much – the views from the top were magnificent!!

The large open space on the other side of the Arc from Rue Foch is called the Promenade du Peyrou – a tree-lined public space with a statue of Louis XIV at the centre.  The statue which stands there today is a replica of the original, which (naturally) was melted down during the French revolution.  The original was monumental in size, and, according to our guide, no building in Montpellier could be taller than the tip of the fingers on the original statue’s raised arm!

The building behind the statue was the “Chateau d’Eau”, a water tower of sorts.  If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the arcades of the aqueduct to the left of the building, which brought water to Montpellier and the “Chateau d’Eau” from 1768 until sometime in the 20th century – the aqueduct and the “Chateau d’Eau” are no longer in use today.

Once we had had our “fill” of the views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe it was time to descend the 88 steps of the spiral stone staircase.  The top of the  Arc de Triomphe can only be visited with a guide and I felt very privileged to have been there!

The next stop for our guided tour was a mysterious place – the medieval mikve.  A mikve “is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism” according to Wikipedia.  I found the Wikipedia article very interesting and instructive – do read it if you want to find out more.

The mikve is located in the cellar of a house in Rue de la Barralerie.  It was discovered by chance during renovation work:  the cellar had always been very damp, so it was decided to dig in attempt try and find the cause of the dampness.  In the process, the archaeologists were called in, and they discovered the remains of the medieval mikve.  If you’ve read the Wikipedia article, you’ll know that a mikve has to be filled with naturally occurring water, either rainwater or a spring or well.  In Montpellier, the mikve is filled by an underground water course.  No wonder that cellar was always damp!!  There is speculation that the synagogue was close by.  When the jews were chased from the French kingdom in the 13th century their places of worship would have been repurposed or destroyed.  It’s a miracle that the mikve survived!

The bath itself had been completely filled in with debris and covered over, but once it was all cleared out and restored, it filled up again with crystal clear water.  The water was so clear that it would have been easy to forget that it was there, had it not been for bits of leaves floating on top.

The picture above was taken from a small room above the bath, perhaps used for undressing / dressing oneself before and after immersion?

I felt quite awed when I climbed the stairs on my way out, thinking of the many centuries that this place had survived!

The mikve was the penultimate stop on our guided visit.  Xavier, our guide, walked us back to the Place de la Comedie – we stopped not all that far from where our visit had begun.  He gave us a little history of this magnificent square, which goes by the nickname of l’oeuf, the egg!  The Place de la Comedie is very much a 19th century creation, with its impressive buildings in the style of the Paris architect Haussmann surrounding it.  Originally there was an egg-shaped island on the square, with roads around it.  I’ve always known the Place de la Comedie in its present pedestrianised version, so that it’s difficult to imagine it with roads and cars.  Below is a picture from 1949, which shows a view of the square towards where the Polygone shopping centre is today.  You can see the egg shape quite clearly.  If you take a look at an aerial view of Place de la Comedie on g**gle maps, you can see that the egg shape is still there – for the moment, as plans are underway to resurface the entire square!

The square takes its name from the Opera Comedie, the 19th century opera house of Montpellier.  A succession of opera houses have stood on the self-same spot, all of them destroyed by fire, apart from the current one, which was built by a disciple of the architect Charles Garnier, of Paris opera fame!  I’ll leave you with a picture of the opera house at dusk, all lit up!  There’s much more to discover in Montpellier.  You’ll see for yourself when you next visit!

Every face tells a story

Have you ever walked down an empty street and felt that you were being watched?  Even though there were no curtains twitching nor anyone at the windows?  Disconcerting, until you discover a face, somewhere high up on a building – a face that may have been gazing out for decades or centuries!  Take a walk around the small towns in Southern France, and you’ll be able to find those faces – sometimes well hidden, sometimes very obvious!

Below is a face above a door in Pezenas.

Faces and facades share the same etymological origin.  The facade being the ‘face’ of a building, it projects political, symbolic and social values, revealing all kinds of information about its owner.  A lot of the ornate facades in this post date from the 19th century, when you could flaunt it if you had it and more was definitely better!!

The pictures below are of a building in Castelnaudary – a former department store dating from the 1870s.  There are many faces on that facade!

The face below is high up on a wall in a narrow street in Beziers – it’s almost ghost like!

Atlantes always look somewhat weary and/or bored – I guess I would too, if I had to carry all that weight! 🙂

There are also plenty of animals to be found on facades.  Here is a pair of fearsome hounds guarding a gate:

A ram:

A lion:

More lions:

Here’s a pair of Caryatids, looking vaguely bored…

Someone’s looking out of a window of this tower in Narbonne.  I wonder what the story behind that window is!

Hermes or Mercury?

More caryatids – these adorn a renaissance mansion in Narbonne.

Two faces carved by the Beziers sculptor Injalbert

Green men also seem to figure in some places:

This finely sculpted face was actually on a door knocker and measured only about 3cm across!

I leave you with this beautiful art nouveau sculpture from a building in Beziers.  Raise your eyes next time you go for a walk – you’ll never know what you may find!!

Shaken, not stirred

… that’s how James Bond liked his martinis!  A classic martini cocktail has only two ingredients – that’s if you don’t count the olive!  Gin and dry vermouth, in the proportion of 6 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, make up a dry martini, according to the International Bartenders Association (IBA).

The town of Marseillan, on the Etang de Thau, is the home of Noilly Prat, a company which has been producing dry vermouth since its foundation by Joseph Noilly in 1813.  Purists say that it’s that dry vermouth that should be used to make the perfect dry martini cocktail!

Here’s a little bit of history for you:  Joseph Noilly was born in 1779 in Saint-Bel-les-Mines.  In 1801, the year that his son Louis was born, Joseph Noilly was a grocer and candle merchant in Lyon.  In 1813, the city of Lyon closed down its central wine and spirits depot.  Joseph Noilly seized the opportunity and started his own wine and spirits merchant business, creating his recipe for the dry vermouth which is still used today!

In 1843, a new branch of the business was opened in Marseille.  The man in charge of that new business was named Claude Prat.  The following year, Claude Prat married Anne Rosine, the daughter of Louis Noilly.  In 1855, Claude Prat became an associate of Louis Noilly and the company’s name was changed to Noilly Prat & Companie.  Between 1859 and 1862, a new production facility was constructed in Marseillan, for the ageing of wines.  I’ll come back to the ageing of the wine in a moment.

By 1865, Louis Noilly and Claude Prat had both died and Anne Roisine was at the helm of Noilly Prat, ushering in a period of expansion and prosperity for the business.  In 1878, the Noilly Prat vermouth was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris – a very high honour indeed!!

Anne Rosine Prat-Noilly was one of the few women who were running large and successful businesses in the 19th century.  The only other one I can think of right now is Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the Veuve Clicquot of the famous champagne house, but I’m sure that there were others.

Anne Rosine was succeeded by her sons Louis and Jean Prat-Noilly in 1902, and in 1928 the company structure was changed to that of a PLC, a public limited company.  Information exists on the year 1939, which shows that the Chairman of the Board was a granddaughter of Anne Rosine.

In 1977, Noilly Prat and Company was bought by Martini & Rossi, the makers of the Martini vermouth.  In turn, Martini & Rossi was bought by Bacardi in 1992, and Noilly Prat vermouths joined a portfolio of illustrious brands such as Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Dewar’s scotch whisky.

Now that I’ve told you about the history of the company, we can get back to visiting the production site in Marseillan.  I’ve visited Noilly Prat many times over the years, and the guided visits are constantly evolving and becoming better organized.  The visitor’s reception area is located in a large, spacious hall, with the shop at one end and the ticket desk at the other end.  Old (and now unused) equipment is used for decoration.

Did you notice the green doors in the upper picture above?  The lettering translates to “Behind these doors the first French vermouth is being made”!  The doors were opened with great flourish by our guide and an assistant, to reveal the Chai des Mistelles, the cellar where the mistelle wines are stored.

Huge oak casks line the cellar down both sides.  Louis Noilly had them built in 1859 – they were made from Canadian oak, and they have been in use ever since!  I’d never come across the word mistelle before my visits to Noilly Prat.  Apparently, this is lightly fermented grape juice, to which neutral alcohol has been added, to avoid it turning into vinegar.  This process leaves residual sugars in the wine, and that adds a little sweetness to the vermouth.

I mentioned earlier that the site in Marseillan was intended for the ageing of wines.  In the days before modern transport appeared, wines were sent by boat, with the barrels often tied up on the decks of ships.  The barrels and their wines were exposed to sun, wind, rain, mists and sea air.  On longer journeys, this produced oxidation in the wine, which gave it a taste all of its own.  Louis Noilly wanted to recreate some of this taste for his vermouth, and chose Marseillan since it was close to the sea.

From the Chai des Mistelles we stepped out into an enclosed yard, where hundreds of oak barrels were out in the open air, exposed to the elements.  The sun beats down on them in summer, the sea mists impart an imperceptible flavour, and the temperature changes throughout the year affect the ageing of the wine.  Seeing all those barrels lined up was a spectacular sight!!

The picture below is from one of my earlier visits to Noilly Prat – I think it was in 2004, when visitors were still allowed into the modern vermoutherie, where the wines are blended and flavoured with aromatics.  That part of the site is now out-of-bounds for visitors, unfortunately.

The barrels come from many different parts – they are bought once they have been used for a good 10 years, some for the production of whisky and cognac, others from port and wine makers.  They are used purely for storage and ageing – because they are second-hand, none of the tannins and flavours from the wood will be imparted to the wine.  A cooperage workshop on-site maintains and repairs the barrels – being outside in all weathers means that they need some TLC from time to time!

Our next stop was the museum, where the history of the company and its vermouth were illustrated.

To turn wine into vermouth, it is infused with a blend of herbs and spices.  The recipe for the original dry vermouth has not changed since Joseph Noilly first developed it, and the ingredients are still bought all over the world!  To ship them, in the days when shipping meant only transport by boat, special cardboard containers were developed.

The recipes for the herbal blends which flavour the vermouth, are closely guarded secrets.  However, in the museum we got to see approximately what is added:

Noilly Prat produces four different kinds of vermouth:  original dry, extra dry, red, and amber.  The pictures below show a simplified version of the recipe – not everything is listed.  Our guide told us that 27 different aromatics are used in the composition of the amber vermouth.

Here are their displays showing the differences in ingredients in their different vermouths.

Once the wines have been carefully aged and blended, a mixture of herbs and spices is added, and the wine is left to macerate with the aromatics for 21 days.  This maceration is done in casks like the ones in the following picture – 14 kilos of dried herbs and spices are added to each cask!

During the 21 days, the wines are stirred  by hand for three minutes every morning, to ensure that the herbs and spices infuse evenly.  A special tool was developed for that purpose.  You can see it in the picture below:

The curved blade at the end of the handle allows the cellar man to lift the herbs which have fallen to the bottom of the cask.  After the 21 days, the wine is strained and decanted into large refrigerated tanks, where all small particles settle to the bottom over a period of time, leaving the vermouth sparkling clear!  Finally, the finished vermouth is transported to Beaucaire by tanker, where it is bottled.

The last stop on our guided visit was the tasting bar – our appetites had been whetted, and finally it was time to taste the results of all that work!

Our guide poured samples of the four different vermouths for us to taste, starting with extra dry, then original dry, followed by the red, and finally the amber.

The original dry is exported all over the world, the extra dry is sold mostly in anglophone countries, the red is sold only outside of France, and the amber is only available in Marseillan!  All four taste very different, and I’m not entirely certain which one I prefer.

Following our introduction to the four Noilly Prat vermouths, our guide took us to the room next door, the so-called cocktail bar!

Large glasses were lined up on the shiny brass top of the bar, and into each glass our guide dropped an ice ball.  Yes, an ice ball!!  Apparently this takes 40 minutes to melt and is therefore far superior to ice cubes!!  Guess what? The moulds were for sale in the shop, and of course I bought one!!  🙂

Everyone could pick their favourite vermouth, and our guide prepared them as follows:

  • A slice of lime zest with the extra dry
  • A slice of lemon zest with the original dry
  • A slice of orange zest with the red
  • A slice of grapefruit zest with the amber

Adding the citrus zest and the ice brought out completely different flavours in the vermouth – it was somewhat of a revelation for me!

We’d come to the end of our visit, next stop the shop, where I bought a bottle of each of the four vermouths as well as the ice ball mould – it was too good an opportunity to miss!  Enjoy – but please remember to drink responsibly!

To find out more and/or to book a guided tour, visit https://www.noillyprat.com

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