A winter walk

Winter is as good a time as any to go for a walk in or around Saint-Chinian. The days are often sunny and mild, and I always try to wear layers, in case I need to shed some clothes as I work up a sweat!  Today I’d like to show you a walk just up the road from Saint-Chinian.  The official starting point for this walk is on Avenue de Villespassans, but sometimes I make it easier for myself by taking the car up the hill, to the car park across the road from the windmill!. 🙂

The Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles, a federation of local councils, published a collection of 73 marked walks, which are available either individually or as a pack from the tourist office in Saint-Chinian.

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The walk I’m writing about is called Les clapas.  Clapas is the name for the impressive mounds of limestones which have been cleared from the fields and piled up by successive generations of shepherds and farmers.

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The leaflets for each walk give details of the walk as well as points of interest along the way.  Because of copyright issues, I’ll not reproduce the inside of the leaflet, but I’ve found a link to details of the walk here.

Most of the Les clapas walk is fairly gentle, especially as I avoided the steep climb out of the village by using the car and parking near the windmill – naughty I know! 😸   The countryside “up on the hill” is a mixture of vineyards and friches, which is the name for abandoned agricultural land.  In some cases the land has been abandoned for some time, but there can still be signs of the passage of humans.  Below is a piece of wood from an old shutter, with the hinge still attached – barely!

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A lot of the vineyards had already been pruned at the time of my visit.  Hard work, but it’s got to be done if there are to be grapes (and wine)!

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Even in the middle of winter, there is still interesting vegetation to be seen.  The plant below is commonly known as butcher’s broom (ruscus aculeatus).  The tips of the leaves are quite spiny!  I believe this plant is used in dried flower arrangements – I wouldn’t want to have to work with it!

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There were still a few olives on some trees – this one was probably missed when the rest of the olives on the tree were harvested.

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The limestone rocks were impressive!  But no, I didn’t have to climb up there!!

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Here was another vestige of humankind, in the middle of nowhere – an old car!!

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This was on the edge of a former friche – I guess the car wreck and the rocks were pushed there by a big digger when the land was cleared! The car must have sat in the wilderness for some time, by the looks of it!!

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The itinerary took me through the hamlet of Fontjun, where I spotted another old vehicle from a bygone age!

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And just around the corner there was second one!  It was painted the same blue colour, and somewhat better preserved.  These carts would have been used for work in the vineyards.

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I saw this beautiful doorway in Fontjun …

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… and a few steps away I spotted this sliding door.  I loved the colour and patina!

The piece of rusty old steel in the picture below was part of an old garden gate – wonderful detailing and patina!

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Along the path, in the middle of nowhere, I came across an abandoned hut.  It had had a fireplace once, and someone had left the bellows to get the fire going, but the chimney had long gone.

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Towards the end of the walk, I took this picture of a capitelle, a stone hut built without any mortar!  This one was very picturesque against the blue sky.

img_6833It was a lovely walk, and I hope you enjoyed it!  I’ll be doing it again before too long – do let me know if you’d like to join me!

The last of the season

With winter marching in and Christmas on the way, I thought I would share some pictures of the glorious autumn colours we had in Languedoc this year.  I took the photographs on a walk last week, a couple of days before some wet and stormy weather moved across Languedoc.  I’m sure there are still a few leaves clinging on out there, but mostly the leaves are gone now.  Not surprising really, it’s early December after all!

Here’s where I started my walk – this field is just a few steps away from the main street in Saint-Chinian.

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Look at how these leaves glow in the sunshine!!

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A little farther on, the trees appear to have shed most of their leaves, but the leaves on the vines beyond are still almost green, and of course the evergreens around the vineyards stay ever so green!

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At Clos Bagatelle, this vineyard was a myriad of different shades of orange and russet.

Just around the corner I found this bottlebrush plant (callistemon) flowering its heart out.

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Daisies seem to thrive everywhere!

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At Chateau La Dournie, the predominant colour was yellow!

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This wonderful stand of trees is right by the Vernazobre river:

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Some plants thrive in the shelter which these trees provide.

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At La Rive, the market gardens had some very neat looking rows of cabbages!

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Returning towards Saint-Chinian, I caught this view of the windmill with the vineyards below.

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This mushroom is not edible, but looks quite attractive.

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And here is the last picture from my walk, the flowers and fruits of an arbousier (arbutus unedo).  I’m not sure if there are many plants which bear fruit and flowers at the same time, but this is definitely one of them!!

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If you’re planning a visit to Saint-Chinian, and are interested in following in my footsteps, I give you below the map of my walk.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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Coming up – the festive season

Now that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder, people everywhere are thinking about preparing for the festive season.  In our area, the marches aux truffes and the foires aux gras – truffle markets and foie gras fairs – are very much part of the run-up to Christmas.

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The truffle markets will be taking place all over the Occitanie region (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon and Pyrenees Orientales) from mid-December to mid-March.  The ones before Christmas will be especially popular with buyers who want a special touch of luxury for their celebration.  You can find a list for the truffle markets in the region via this link.  And if you want to know what it is like to visit a truffle market, have a look at the post I wrote about my visit to one such market a little while ago.

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The foie gras fairs start in mid-October and run until the end of March, and are for those who enjoy eating foie gras and ducks and geese.  At a typical fair you’ll find many different kinds of foie gras for sale, along with the meat of the birds who produced the fattened livers, either as whole birds (minus the livers) or pieces thereof.  The legs can be turned into confit de canard (or confit d’oie if it was a goose), the breasts are grilled and the rendered fat is a great replacement for butter or oil in cooking.  I’ve written about my quest for making confit de canard in a previous post.  If you are interested in any of this, you can find the dates for the foie gras fairs via this link.

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In this part of the world, to prepare for the festive season also means stocking up on good wines.  To make it easier for the buyers to do just that, the Saint-Chinian winemakers’ syndicate has come up with the idea of an open day, a Journee Portes Ouvertes. The idea is that you can go from winery to winery, meet the winemakers, taste what what they have on offer, and buy what you like.  The event will take place on December 10th, 2017 and you can find full details here.

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Once you have your truffles, foie gras and wine, you’ll need to shop for presents.  Where better but at one of the many Christmas markets which are taking place all over the region?  Some are one-day events, whilst in the larger towns they can run for the whole month of December!  Month-long markets can be found in Montpellier (1 to 28 December 2016), Carcassonne (3 – 31 December 2016) and Perpignan (3 to 31 December 2016); dates for the Christmas markets in Narbonne have not been announced at the time of writing this, and in Beziers there will be pop-up Christmas shops all over the town centre, rather than a classic Christmas market.

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The smaller one-day events have already started, and here is just a small selection, to give you an idea of what is coming up!  The first market on my list is at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan on November 26th and 27th, 2016.  This is a very popular event with many stalls.  On December 3rd, 2016 markets can be found at Agde, Quarante, Serignan and Servian.  The following day, on December 4th, 2016, Christmas markets take place in Saint-Chinian and at Terra Vinea near Portel-des-Corbieres.  On the following weekend, there is a market in Lezignan Corbieres on Saturday, December 10th, 2016, and on the Sunday, December 11, 2016 there are Capestang and Cruzy.  On December 17, 2016 there is a Christmas market in Valras Plage, and Chateau Coupe Roses in La Caunette is hosting a market on December 18, 2016.  The last market on my list takes place in Caunes Minervois on December 20, 2016 – for all those last minute presents!!

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Do you have a favourite Christmas market?  How do you prepare for the festive season?

The Village Voice

Florence Nash has very kindly written another post for this blog!  I’ve lived in Saint-Chinian for so long that I take the sounds around me for granted, and as such I don’t really pay attention to them any more.  So it’s wonderful to be reminded of those particular sounds which make living in a village (as opposed to a town/city) so very special – thank you, Florence!!


I usually arrive in Saint-Chinian, at the end of August or early September, as a refugee from the sweaty, buggy, late-summer slump of the southern United States, where people dash from one air-tight, air-conditioned haven to the next. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite images of this many-splendored place is a surprisingly modest one: My waking view of dawn lighting the red roof tiles outside the wide-open casement window, and the curtain sheers, dotted with little Fleurs de Lys, stirring slightly in air just cool enough to require a blanket. This air is sooo delicious! And virtually bug-free, with the sky criss-crossed by swallows (or martins, or swifts — I never can tell the difference) swooping and darting helpfully after their airborne breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of closing these windows at night, even if it were to take three blankets.

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That may explain how I have become so conscious of the voice of Saint-Chinian, the particular texture of sounds human and otherwise that seems almost a sonic portrait of the village. Especially in early morning as the village wakens, but throughout the day as well, I find myself listening for and collecting its distinctive sounds.

To begin with, there’s the town clock that rings each hour and then, just to make sure everybody gets it right, does it again. The local doves join the daily aubade with their soft hoo, hoo-hooo. (One morning a few years ago I heard gunshots blasting through their peaceful calls. To my relief, it turned out to be someone chasing marauding boars out of his vineyards; they have a destructive enthusiasm for ripe grapes.) As the sun climbs, there’s the creak and clack of shutters being opened and secured and, on Thursdays and Sundays, the thrum of van engines as marchands converge on the market square and set up their stalls, calling and clattering and laughing. Plenty of dogs are quick to voice their territorial imperatives — there’s some indignant barking under my window as I write.

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I’m renting Acanthus, as usual, the house occupying the two stories over Andreas and Anthony’s headquarters on Rue Cours La Reine, and throughout the day I hear the companionable murmur of many a conversation — in French, English, German, and who knows what — below my windows as friends stop by for a word. The mail carrier on her rounds usually has time for a little chat, too.  This street is one of the few actually wide enough for two passing cars and even a bit of parking. But just in back, and all around, there are “streets” you’d swear a car could never fit through — until you find yourself leaping frantically into a doorway and mashing yourself against the wall as one squeezes past with a few inches (really!) to spare, rear-view mirror practically snatching at the market basket clasped to your bosom. These tiny streets, separating dwellings by only a few yards, are one of the factors contributing to what amounts to a village-wide conversation; that, along with the fact that every sound reverberates full force off these ancient stones. One morning as I lay in bed savoring the rising light and the twitter of birds, I heard the clear ting ting of a teaspoon against a coffee cup in someone’s kitchen across the way. It was extremely intimate, somehow.

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To be fair, I have to mention the occasional roar and clatter of huge trucks that shoulder their way along the main drag, momentarily challenging conversation under the trees at Le Balcon, and Vernazobre, and the Café de la Paix. They’re not my favorite noise, but they are part of the real life of all these old villages now strung like beads along a narrow, busy trucking route. I’ve come to love Saint-Chinian because it’s not a Hollywood-glamorous South of France destination, but an ancient town in a surrounding of dramatic beauty — and equally dramatic history — where people work hard and live in close community, mostly either making wine or providing services for those who do. And, for my money, instead of seeing famous beauties in full make-up and stage lighting, I find it a lot more interesting — and  privileged — to get to know what they’re like after a hard day’s work, or first thing in the morning!

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Speaking of working, I have to share with you one more little item in Saint-Chinian’s voice. The other day I drove up behind the Cave Cooperative to have a look at Domaine La Madura’s new winery, built since I was last here by my friends Nadia and Cyril. On the way up I spotted Nadia out talking with the pickers, so we only exchanged a hasty wave. At the winery, though, I found Cyril in rubber boots hosing off a concrete floor, the air tinged with new fermentation. He showed me around the sleek, modern building crowning the hill (and uncannily harmonious with the landscape): lab, tasting room, sales area, offices. We entered a low-ceilinged space filled with solemn rows of large, apparently identical barrels; but each bore its own markings: contents, origins, age; each had a personal history of weather and work and worry. The room felt like a kind of chapel of wine. Cyril removed the bung from one of the barrels nearby and said, “Come listen. You can hear the wine working.” I put my ear down close to the bung hole, held my breath . . . and there it was, faint but steady. Sssshhhh. Just like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. The voice of the wine! Delicate and astonishing and new, this voice of Saint-Chinian is now, without doubt, my undisputed favorite.

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Before I sign off, just one or two more words about the pleasures of driving in the Languedoc countryside. Because every road wriggles and squeezes through village after village —often without room for two cars to pass and always with two or three badly parked vans in the way— drivers encounter over and over the need to slow down, calculate relative maneuvering ease, and cede right-of-way in the most practical direction. This is accomplished fluidly, quickly, and without fuss by the great majority of drivers I’ve encountered, in a sort of car-ballet of accommodation. It makes me feel better about human behavior. It makes me feel less good about driving in the US. Lastly, my very favorite road sign in all of France is the one that says “TOUTES DIRECTIONS.” No message could be more welcome or more comforting than this, to us strangers wandering in a strange land: “Wherever it is you are trying to go, friend, you are — so far — on the right road!”

Four in a cloister

The cloister of the old abbey in Saint-Chinian is one of the architectural jewels of the village.  It was restored some years ago and now is a haven of peace, with a tinkling fountain in the centre.  This summer, I went to a concert which took place in the cloister.  A stage had been set up against the modern wing, and chairs were dotted about in amongst the olive trees and the box hedges.

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The evening’s concert was by the Dallas Baumgartner Quartet, playing gypsy jazz.  Depending on which source you look at, Dallas Baumgartner is either Django Reinhardt’s great-grandson, or else his stepfather was a grandson of Django Reinhardt’s.

Once the chairs had all been taken and night started to fall, the musicians began to play.  What they played was utterly enthralling!

Below are five videos, which I hope will capture some of the magic of the evening!  E-mail subscribers, please remember to visit the blog site to watch the videos.

The evening was such a success, that at the end of it the mayor suggested that it could become a regular event in Saint-Chinian.  I certainly hope to hear them all again!

 

Back again!

Once more I have the pleasure of hosting Florence Nash in my house.  Over the past twelve years, Florence has become a dear friend, and I greatly look forward to her visits each year! Florence enthusiastically agreed to write a guest post for the blog, to share her experiences of her visits to Saint-Chinian.

 

Before retiring in 2003, Florence worked as a writer and editor at Duke University Medical Center for 16 years. Her poems, book and music reviews, program notes, and feature articles have appeared in publications across the USA. She has two collections of poetry, Fish Music (Gravity Press, 2010) and Crossing Water (Gravity Press, 1996).  Florence is also a “reckless but enthusiastic” cook, and it’s thanks to her that I have been able to write about the wonderful dish that is tomato pie!!

My twelve annual September visits to St. Chinian have been a pretty even balance between time on my own and playing host to friends or family, with a pleasant tidal swing between these two states of being. By myself, I grow impatient for guests to arrive so I can share my favorite places and things, show off my French (however spotty), have someone to cook for or with . . . . but after a few days of company I look forward to their departure so I can get back to my own rhythms and ramblings. This year, for the first time, no visitors are scheduled, so I find myself more than usually attentive to my list of daily Projects, various errands devised to take me out of the house and onto the scenic, fragrant little roads that honeycomb these rolling miles of vineyards.

For instance: Yes, of course I can buy Luques olives, my favorites, right here at the market, but with all the day before me, why not drive over to l’Oulibo? Here at this big olive mill on the D5 near Bize-Minervois, you can happily and shamelessly sample your weight in olives and oils and tapenades before picking up a supply of fresh, unpasteurized Luques — more subtle and delicious than the market ones — AND snag a few appealing olive wood or olive-oil-based souvenirs for the folks back home while you’re at it.

If you need to lay in a supply of jambon sec for your stay (as surely you do!), you may have heard Andreas claim that the very best Serrano ham comes from a vendor at the Narbonne central market — he’s the only one whose stall has a bright red slicing machine — so how about a day trip down to that fabulous foodie palace? This project, incidentally, also provides the minor drama of maneuvering a rental car through thickly trafficked city streets, a challenge quite different from that of winding country lanes.

Then there’s the matter of daily bread: St. Chinian boasts plenty of perfectly good boulangeries, but there’s solid consensus that — until recently — right down the road in Azillanet, Stéphane made the best bread in the region, in a boulangerie so small, with an oven so deep, that he had to open his bright blue door to make room for maneuvering the long wooden paddles that shift the loaves over the wood fire. And, since he only opened for retail sale a few hours at a time and you never quite remembered what those hours were, you might find yourself whiling away a half hour or so waiting on a sun-warmed stone wall, watching the efforts of a giant tour bus to turn down a road built a millennium ago for pedestrians and horse carts. Gazing back at the faces peering from the bus’s tinted windows while the bus lurched back and forth, grinding and huffing, you’d be permitted to muse on the difference between tourists and travelers, and to be filled with satisfaction to know you are among the latter. (This year, alas, the boulangerie behind the blue door is gone, and Stéphane is making his bread at a new location yet to be discovered by yours truly.)

My favorite Project so far took nearly all the free days I had available. Early in my wanderings through the Languedoc, I stopped for lunch in a village, took a photo of its strikingly picturesque central square and, once back home, installed it as my new desktop  background image. To this day I confront that idyllic scene every morning: the fountain, the medieval buildings, sunlight through a gigantic central tree dappling the happy diners at tables scattered below. The image has become emblematic to me of the seductions of southern France. Big problem, though: I couldn’t remember what village it was. So, Major Project! Guided only by memory fragments and vague directional instinct — tight climbing turns, mountains: it must be northward — I set out morning after morning with my trusty road atlas and unflagging determination. As someone said — Homer, maybe? — it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. These explorations were full of new scenery, exhilarating driving, and places I might never otherwise have encountered.  At last, after snagging a scarce parking place along the road, I walked down into a hamlet wedged in a steep, narrow canyon too small to admit cars: St. Guilhelm-le-Desert, refuge of Charlemagne’s general-turned-hermit. Bingo! My square at last! I’ve returned a couple of times with visiting friends, who were thrilled. We stayed overnight in an ancient tower turned hostel (which I believe is no longer open) to explore neighboring caverns and take rented kayaks on the river. Maybe I’ll get back there this year. Fingers crossed.

You may have detected in these ruminations a certain preoccupation with driving. You’re right. In contrast to the calm, cushioned passivity of my automatic-everything SUV on the well-groomed highways at home, my little rental car is lively as a jackrabbit, responding instantly — I almost want to say eagerly — as it slaloms along these skinny little roads that flow sensuously over the terrain’s varied contours. It demands unwavering vigilance and constant gear-shifting for blind curves, oncoming vehicles, precipitous dropoffs with no guardrails, cyclists, wandering livestock (a sheep, once, up near Roquefort), and grape-hauling tractors at harvest. It’s tiring, yes, but also as much fun as taking up a new sport. And it creates a sort of hypersensitivity, a connectedness, to all aspects of the surroundings, which can only be good, right? It’s all so beautiful!

So, whoever you are reading this, thanks for indulging these extemporaneous musings, and, if you don’t know the Languedoc yet, I sincerely hope you will some day. I wish you as much delight as it’s been my good fortune to have. Make sure you contact Andreas and Anthony at Midihideaways. You couldn’t be in more congenial, knowledgeable, and helpful hands. Tell them I sent you.