Romans and ruins

The Journees du Patrimoine took place for the 31st time in France this past weekend.  The event was started in 1984 by the then French minister for culture, Jack Lang.  The aim was to allow the French public to visit their national heritage monuments and buildings, which were usually closed to the public or rarely visited.  Following the success of the French initiative, several European countries started their own “heritage weekends” in 1985, and in 1991 the European Union officially instituted the European Heritage Days, to be held on the third weekend of September each year.

So it was that I found myself in Narbonne last Sunday afternoon, to visit the Clos de la Lombarde excavation site.

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Narbonne was founded in 118 BC and became the capital of Roman Gaul.  The museums in Narbonne have an important collection of finds from the Roman period of the town,  and I wanted to see where some of these pieces had come from.  The excavation site is right in Narbonne, next to the cemetery, and it had miraculously survived without being built over until our times.  In 1973 the treasury decided to build a tax office on the site, and initial surveys were carried out by local archaeologists.  What they found was spectacular, and in 1974 excavations started.  In the intervening years, the site has been pretty much excavated all over.

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Sunday afternoon was hot and humid, but that did not deter any of the many visitors.  When I arrived at the site I felt a little disappointed – it looked just like a lot of dust and rubble at first glance.  BUT there were guided visits, and after a brief wait, during which I tried my hand at assembling a piece of fresco, we were off with our guide.  A word on the fresco puzzle – they were not pieces of real Roman wall paintings, but recreated with plasterboard (sheetrock) and paint.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable – she had been part of the excavation team for a long time, and knew the history of the site as well as anybody.  What we had in front of us were the remains of a block of houses, with roads visible on three sides. Our guide was wonderful at bringing life to the dust and rubble all around us.  Here is a map:

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The green areas are the roads, with the two running north/south on the map being major roads, with a well-made surface.  The roads at a right angle were narrower and not as much used.  The first house we looked at is called Maison a Portiques, the house of the porches, so-called because it had a porch running along two sides of it.  The one along the main road was wide enough for pedestrians to walk under and perhaps for merchants to set up stalls.  The Maison a Portiques dates from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.  In the picture below you are looking along the road, and you’d be standing under the roof of the porch.  The square block would have been the base for one of the columns holding up the roof of the porch.  The chains mark out the wall of the house, and on the left of the picture they mark out the edge of the road.

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The door on the main street led into a spacious hallway, and beyond the hallway was the interior garden of the house.

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The members of the association Les Amis du Clos de la Lombarde have tried to recreate some feel of the garden.  Right ahead is the well – the stone surround is cut from one single piece of rock.  Behind it is a basin, which was filled with water on the previous day.  The floor of the basin is covered in opus spicatum, flat bricks laid on their sides in a herringbone pattern.  The Romans used a lime mortar mixed with crushed brick to create a watertight finish.  2000 years later it is still watertight – isn’t that astonishing??

Behind the round basin was a square basin.  Unfortunately part of that basin had been destroyed when an early Christian basilica had been built in the 4th century AD.  You can see the the herringbone pattern brickwork and the slightly pink render on the walls of the basin.  In the top right hand corner is a lead plate, which allowed the basin to be drained.

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All around the edge of the garden was a channel which could be flooded, perhaps to cool the air, or to water the plants?  The house was connected to “mains” water by a lead pipe – and in those days not every house had that convenience.  If you look very careful at the picture with the channel you can just about make out a raised round area which would have been where a column would have stood.

Some of the rooms still had their original floors in place, although to see the beautiful mosaic floors you’ll have to visit the archaeological museum in Narbonne, where they are preserved.

Part-way through our visit we had a little interruption.   A group of local amateur actors had prepared a sketch after a story by Seneca.  Lucilius, the owner of the house of the porches, had invited Marcus Clodius, his neighbour, and Sagaristio, a friend, for a house-warming party.  Unfortunately the construction works were running late (some things never change 🙂 ).  The triclinium, the dining room, was not yet finished, so Lucilius offered his friends some of his fine wines.  Lemniselenis, the wife of Marcus Clodius, had not been invited, but told us bits of the story from the sidelines.  There was a little incident with one of the servants, which required some audience participation :)!  All of the dialogue was spoken in Latin, but I confess that I did not remember very much from my school days!!

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I took a video of some of it for you – unfortunately my camera decided to stop halfway through, so you will have to imagine Lemniselenis’ cook, Paulus Bocus, coming past the house and tempting the hungry visitors with this menu:

Pepones et Melones (melon and watermelon with pepper)
Ostreae (oysters)
Perna (pork roasted in a crust, with figs)
Pulum frontonianum (chicken in a pot)
Patina ex lacte (dessert with milk baked in the oven – flan?)
Patina de piris (pears cooked with honey and spices)
Dulcia domestica (dates stuffed with pine nuts and honey)
Mustea et panis mellitus (pancakes and honeyed bread)

I guess we’d have all gone over to Marcus Clodius’ house for that feast!  Come to think of it, perhaps that’s a menu I could cook with my friends at one of our cookery get-togethers?  Here’s the video (e-mail subscribers please visit the WordPress site to see the video):

After that lovely diversion we continued our visit.  Here’s an interesting item, which is still in its original position:

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It is located under what could have been stairs up to a first floor.  Its use?  A kind of emergency toilet!  The Roman houses did not have their own toilets – if you had to go, you went to the neighbourhood therme, the baths, to relieve yourself.  This emergency toilet was or is still linked to the drain which is in the road outside the house.

At some point in the 3rd century AD the houses were abandoned, for reasons unknown.  It is supposed that, because of unrest and the threat of invasion, the inhabitants moved to safer quarters inside the town. Bit by bit the houses fell apart, and lucky for us, they were not pillaged too badly at the time.  A lot of the plaster murals fell to the floor, and the archaeologists were able to piece some of them together.  The reconstituted frescoes are on display in the archaeological museum in Narbonne, along with the mosaic floors.  Here is our guide, holding up illustrations of some of the murals:

To give you an idea of size, the Maison a Portiques occupies 975 square metres (8775 square feet).  It must have been a large house, even in its day.  The adjoining house on the block is called Maison III, and is slightly smaller;  it “only” occupies 700 square metres (6300 square feet)!  Maison III is known the way it was in the 2nd century AD. Fashions had changed, and the garden of this property was surrounded by the house in a U-shape.  The basin in the garden was entirely lined with white marble. And amazingly, this basin also still holds the water!

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Maison III also held a real puzzle for the archaeologists!  In one of the rooms the floor was badly cracked and subsiding.  When they probed underneath, they found that something had been filled in.  And when that something had been fully excavated, it appeared to have been a giant fish tank – a living larder.  This pool could be filled by a lead pipe from the well, and there was also a drain to the street.  On one side there were steps into the water, so the fish could be caught easily.  The holes at the bottom are the mouths of amphorae.  Perhaps they were there to allow smaller fish to shelter from larger predatory fish?

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Here is another picture of the garden of Maison III, along with a model reconstitution, showing what the house might have looked like:

Beyond Maison III lay the neighbourhood baths.  Our guide explained that a large part of the baths were below the cemetery next door, but for obvious reasons they had not been given permission to explore there :(.  Since the cemetery was first built it has been well known that the land had previously been occupied – several of the tombs have mosaic floors…

The final part of our guided visit covered the early Christian basilica, which was built towards the end of the 4th century AD.  Some of the cut stones from the earlier constructions were reclaimed for the building of the basilica, which was built over the remains of the Roman houses.

I think I’ll leave you here – there’s so much to discover, so much to see, so much historical context!  It would be beyond the scope of this blog to give you much more information – I leave that to the experts, who will be only too happy to show you everything there is to see at Clos de la Lombarde, when you visit yourself!

 

The hills are alive…

… and they really are, but the “alive” in the title is there more because I expect you have all heard Julie Andrews singing that line – at least I imagine that you will have heard it at least once!!  Before you think that I might have lost the plot, the “alive” should have been “awash”, but “The hills are awash” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.  To get to the point, the hills around here ARE awash with un-discovered secrets and treasures, just waiting to be found!

A couple of years ago a friend mentioned that there had been a Roman settlement on one of the hills near St Jean de Minervois.  I spoke to some other friends about it and together we decided that we would try and find a trace of it.  I had been looking at aerial maps on the internet, and narrowed it down to a certain area.  Then I spoke with some more people who knew their way around, and was told that there had been a Roman fort on that hill, and that on the path leading there one could still see a great big stone, which had no doubt been part of the gate into the complex.

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I had also been told that at some point there had been excavations on the site, and that there were a fair number of pottery shards, etc.  So, nine intrepid explorers set off for a walk one beautiful late-summer afternoon, with sturdy shoes and long trousers, and our trusty binoculars and cameras.   The path started out well trodden, but as we went on it became more and more overgrown.  The plateau where the fort would have been was covered in vegetation typical for the garrigue:  green oak, Euphorbia, grasses, arbousier and heather.  We scrambled through the brush and kept looking for clues.  The views were magnificent!

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We did come across two interesting discoveries:

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The ruin, I found out later, used to be a chapel, and the car is undoubtedly a Citroen 2CV, albeit somewhat dishevelled.

After about 45 minutes of searching the ground for clues and getting scratched whilst trying to penetrate the wilderness, we thought we’d call it a day and give up. Perhaps we were on the wrong hill after all.  But a few of our group were a little ahead of the rest and when I caught up with them there was great excitement!!  They had found a big stack of crates, partially covered by a tarpaulin!!

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From the marks on the boxes it looked as though the excavations had taken place some time in the late 70’s, and after a couple of years the site had simply been abandoned. There were a couple of deep holes, and over one of them there was a steel structure which would have allowed a cover to be rigged up. The pieces of terracotta in the boxes could have been from anything, but my guess is that most came from amphorae – they were thick-walled and showed finger marks from the turning on what would have been the inside of the vessel.

After that excitement our little band of explorers carried on just a little further to get to the highest point of the site, from where the views were simply divine!

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On the way back I examined that old 2CV a little more – it’s pretty amazing the way cars were built way back then.  The chrome on the bumpers was still in great condition, the steering wheel still turned, and the car even had the petrol canister still in place.

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Look closely at that petrol canister – you might be able to discern the writing stamped on it?  When I saw that it all fell into place – that’s why it’s called a Jerrycan!! I’ve since had a look on Wikipedia, and of course that’s the case.

When we finally caught up with our friends they had started to worry a little, wondering if we’d fallen into a hole :-), and of course they were sorry to missed out on our finds!  On we went to have our picnic – well deserved!  Everyone had brought some food and it turned out to be a real spread.

Delicious quiches and salads, followed by some wickedly rich chocolate brownies, all eaten in the open air one balmy evening!  And here’s one last picture for you!

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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.

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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 :

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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!

Beziers – Musee Bitterois

Beziers has several interesting museums, and I recently visited the Musee du Bitterois in an attempt to entertain my 15-year-old nephew, who came to visit during his school holidays.  I’m not sure how successful the entertaining part was (YOU try and get some kind of feedback from a 15-year-old teen!! :-)), but I was certainly impressed by the museum.  It is situated in part of the old barracks in the St Jacques neighbourhood of the old town, and the building itself is impressive, even more so on the inside.  It’s all very spacious and well-lit, arranged around what was an open courtyard at one point, and which is now partly roofed over.

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The exhibition is in chronological order, and starts with prehistoric finds.  I was particularly impressed by this beautiful menhir and the prehistoric burial urns on display.  I get confused as to what belongs to which period – so if you really want to know you’ll have to visit.

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The most ancient artifacts were juxtaposed with modern art – an interesting concept!

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The museum has a particularly rich collection of Roman artifacts – commonplace objects such as oil lamps,

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but also this exquisite carving, which I think is ivory.  It’s tiny and except for the missing head it’s perfect.

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Another astounding find was a whole collection of stone heads of the imperial family, which turned up when a house in central Beziers was remodelled in the 19th century.  They were all  hidden in the same location and in beautiful condition!  Don’t ask me the names, I only remember Agrippa and Julie…

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Then there were these enormous stone blocks with an inscription which I’ve not yet been able to decipher, despite using google translations.  Something to do with hot mother’s  milk making you happy, and male heirs, but most likely I have that totally wrong, Latin was never a strong subject for me :-).  I couldn’t find a description for that particular exhibit, otherwise I could have told you what the inscription really meant.  But this way we can just make it up as we go along.

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And then there was this rather racy sounding inscription, but I think it’s something to do with six at home (??), and of course most of it is missing, so who knows??

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After all that Roman stuff the exhibition got to the medieval period, which meant a fair amount of religious art, and there was a fine statue of a headless St Aphrodise.  Finally we arrived at more modern times, and there was a charming reconstruction of an Auberge along the Canal du Midi, along with the workshop of a last potter of Beziers.

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The revolt of the wine growers was well documented, and the portrait of Ernest Ferroul caught my eye.  He seems to have been very active in the movement, but was also a very shrewd politician and changed allegiances frequently – sounds familiar?

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The Station Uvale looks very much like an art deco ornament.  By the looks of it everything do with grapes was being sold there.

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And here is yet another door knocker, this one made by a Mr Cordier towards the end of the 19th century, and pretty monumental in size!!

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Beziers’ industries were many, and this poster for Blayac brandy is particularly colourful.  I’ve not been able to turn up any information about the factory or the brand, but the name Blayac is still very common in Beziers.

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And here’s another representation of the famous camel (see the post about the occitan carnival) .  It’s somewhat smaller than the camel which is taken out for the processions, but it has a very jolly face!

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And finally, the old boat in the sunken exhibition space of the museum, along with the display cases of local fauna and flora.  Fancy a little cruise?

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The St Jacques neighbourhood surrounding the museum is pretty interesting too, full of old buildings and quirky details.

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One of the more interesting things to see is the site of the old Roman arena, which was completely built over after the fall of the Roman empire.  At some point during the past 20 years, the municipality decided to consolidate the remaining walls and create a small park open to the public.

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The museum has a hand-cranked model of the site, to give you an idea of what there was/is.

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The views from the edge of St Jacques neighbourhood are fantastic – you get a great view of the cathedral, and the surrounding plains.  It must have been a very strategic spot in olden times…

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And there you have it, an exploration of another small part of Beziers, full of history and interesting nooks and crannies.  Thanks for joining me!

Romans and restaurants

To walk off some of the excesses of the festive seasons I was invited by friends for a walk in Vendres.  I’d not really explored Vendres before, but it’s right next door to Valras, and that’s probably why – for a quick trip to the Med I always head for Valras.  Well, perhaps not next time.  As with so many villages in the area, Vendres has a long history.  The Romans liked the climate well enough to build there, and the remains of one villa can be seen just outside the village, We decided to explore…

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On the map this spot is marked as the Temple de Venus but it seems that may not have been the case!  So the walls we got to see were where the Romans took their baths.  Seems that even Cassini got that one wrong.  The map also marks a Source Sulfureuse, and whilst it was tempting to see whether the map would hold the promise of the sulphur spring, we decided to head south for the nature reserve and the marina.  If you want to have a look at the map it can be found on the Geoportail website – highly informative and useful.

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The boat was just by the remains of the baths, too picturesque to resist!  On the way to the marina we found some more Roman artifacts – and they seemed extensive:  the remains of an aqueduct.  Fascinating, because what is still intact is not visible, and what can be seen is thoroughly broken.  The first picture is of a collection or distribution point – unfortunately the panel explaining it all had disappeared.

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We had to scramble up the hillside to get to it, but were repaid with wonderful views of the Etang de Vendres.

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On the Geoportail website there is a possibility to overlay the current map with the map drawn up by Cassini in the 18th century, as well as a map from the 19th century, and it’s interesting to see how the size of the Etang has changed over the centuries, perhaps due to farming practices?  The Port Conchylicole is also a fairly recent development – a great place for getting fresh mussels and oysters, and eating them right by the water.  I’ll be back for that in the summer!  Across the road from the car park by the side of the port is where the path into the nature reserve starts.

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The Etang is a haven for migrating birds and other wildlife, so any of you keen on birdwatching should add this to your list of places to visit.

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The connection to the next part of this post is somewhat tenuous to say the least.  Right along the coast from Vendres, in Valras Plage, is a restaurant called Le Delphinium, and until a couple of years ago it was owned and run by Delphine and Louis Louro.  When Delphine and Louis sold up they were going to open another restaurant along the Canal du Midi – and so we waited and waited, until finally last summer their new restaurant opened its doors in Colombiers.  Their new venture, Au Lavoir, was well worth the wait!

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Au Lavoir is both a restaurant and a Maison d’Hote with four bedrooms, by the Canal du Midi.  The restaurant has a large courtyard for outdoor dining in the summer, and a spacious dining room for the rest of the year – all tastefully and comfortably furnished.  BUT we want to know about the food! Summed up in one word:  sublime.  The first time I went was with friends and their children.  The kids had a la carte and us adults had the blow out menu with a glass of wine with each course.

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Starter was the most tender tuna fish

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Then came a giant prawn with vegetable tagliatelle

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Followed by pan-fried foie gras on a slice of apple

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You can see that I’m not a very fast drinker

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For main course there was roast pigeon

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And then a cheese trolley to die for!

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What restraint!!

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And as it was getting dark dessert arrived.  Souffle au Grand Marnier

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Louis came out to serve the desserts, and he slipped the ice cream and grand marnier into the souffle –  no it does not collapse!  And the combination is divine!  AND so light at the end of the meal…

The children had the same starter, followed by roast rack of lamb, and then a chocolate dessert.  They really were spoilt, and so were we 🙂 !

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