Why we are here

This guest post was written by Lori – her home town is in British Columbia, Canada and she co-owns Mirabilis, a vacation rental house in St. Chinian, with her husband Mark.

I wonder if we will ever get over the beauty of visiting the South of France,¬†ūüáęūüá∑ and for us especially the Languedoc area?¬†¬†With the vast differences in local landscapes, you can drive 35 minutes to the cool breezes of the sea or 20 minutes the other way to the stunning village of Roquebrun and the regional park landscape.¬†¬†At home in Canada this would require 2 different provinces and a 6-7 hour drive to achieve such diversity.

Right in the middle of these two landscapes, my husband bought us a renovation project vacation house in the loveliest little wine town called Saint-Chinian.¬†¬†Every year we manage to escape our regular grind of life and make our way to Saint-Chinian for a glorious three weeks of French bliss!¬†¬†We know we are home the moment we park our little rental car in the lay-by overlooking Saint-Chinian, with the mountains in the distance. ¬†We open the doors to be greeted by the sound of the singing cicadas. After a big deep breath, smiles take over our faces and instant relaxation sets in.¬†¬†We travel the winding road down the steep valley into the downtown with excitement to see what is the same and what has changed since our last visit. Driving down the road beside the market square, it’s wonderful to see the elderly people sitting on the benches, having conversations and watching life.¬†¬†As we turn the corner to drive down the road to our house, we ask each other the burning question: “Will there be parking available outside the house?” ¬†YES!
After unpacking, we start with the deliberations as to which of the many restaurants on the Main Street will we walk to for dinner, knowing full well that my favourite restaurant “Le Village” will be the chosen one!
After years of vacations, it is super nice to be recognized by the proprietors and villagers and sometimes overhear, “It’s the Canadians”.¬†¬†Market day I have to find our friend with the clothing stand for some idle chitchat and to purchase a couple of dresses, which is what he has come to expect. Summertime is amazing, with Artisan Night Markets, two major weekly morning markets, flea markets (like an immense yard sale) on Saturdays, outdoor movies on Thursdays, wine tasting events, music concerts, great restaurants, walking tours and endless people watching.

I would say that this is such a great spot to come and have a vacation because there is something for everyone. People fall in love with this area and they keep coming back!

If you ever wanted to have a vacation in this lovely area, then don’t hesitate!!! Until next year!

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On rocky ground

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

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

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

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

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

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Dine at the Auberge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These were the starters:

Salade du Jaur

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

Aumoniere de Chevre Chaud

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

Salade Auberge

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

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

Scallops in wild mushroom sauce

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

Veal Osso Bucco

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

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

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

Cheese board at L’Auberge Vigneronne

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

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

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

If I had a hammer …

For a long time, I have known that the area around Saint-Chinian is particularly rich in study material for geologists.  The rock formations are spectacular, even to the untrained eye, but to me geology has always been like a closed book.  Some time ago, one of my guests sent me a link to a website where he had discovered an article about a self-guided tour of sites of geological interest around Saint-Chinian Рmore specifically, the sites were of the lower Ordovician period. The website can be found via this link Рin addition to the tour around the Saint-Chinian area, there are several others on this page, no doubt equally interesting!

According to Wikipedia, “the Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago (Mya) to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.” ¬†To give you a visual idea of¬†the¬†timescale, here is a picture of a geological clock, found on Wikipedia – humans arrived only at two seconds before noon!

The website itself can be translated via one of the translation engines on the web such as translate.google.com but I’ve not been able to translate the PDF files of the itineraries.

I had sent the itinerary to a friend who was very keen to follow it, and so one sunny day earlier this month we set off on our trip!  The first stop was near Berlou, at a site which illustrates the upper Cambrian and the start of the Ordovician.  On our way there, we walked past a flowering oak tree:

Stoechas lavender:

A cistus with tiny flowers:

And some wall pennywort, which the¬†French name translates to Venus’s navel:

Unbeknown to me, my friend had done a course in geology at university in her younger years, and she’d found the¬†hammer she used when at university!! ¬†With erosion and exposure to the elements, the surface of rocks changes quite a bit, so splitting a rock with the help of a¬†hammer will show its ‘true’ colours. ¬†What fun we had with that hammer!!

Here are some bits of quartz, which we found at the same site.

And bands of quartz embedded in a rock.

 

On our way back to the car, we enjoyed looking at some very typical vegetation.  The heady smell of the garrigue was wonderful!

Our next stop was on the road to Berlou, at a place where a trench had been cut into the rock for the road. ¬†The rocks on the left hand side of the cut were an outcrop of the Saint-Chinian formation, and on the right an outcrop of the La Maurerie formation was visible. ¬†I’m not sure that I saw a lot of difference, but I’m no geologist ūüôā ¬†The view of the valley in the direction of Berlou was very beautiful though!

Onwards to the viewpoint, just outside Berlou, and another spectacular view of the mountain in the distance, Mont Caroux. The mountain is called ‘The Sleeping Lady’, and in the right light and with enough imagination, you might¬†just about be able to imagine a reclining figure, with the head on the left hand side.

The road took us to the village of Berlou, and through beautiful countryside, past the villages of Escagnes and the hamlet of Mezeilles, before arriving at Vieussan.  We had planned to have lunch at Le Lezard Bleu in that village, but unfortunately the restaurant had to close on that day for maintenance.  We booked at table in Roquebrun instead, at Le Petit Nice. Just before we reached Roquebrun, we stopped once more Рthis time to observe a fold in the rock.

After a delicious lunch in Roquebrun, we continued towards the village of Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez.  On the way there, we stopped to admire the Landeyran valley with its sheer cliffs.  The cliffs are much used by rock climbers to test their skills on!

Our last stop of the day had nothing to do with the Ordovician, but was on the itinerary as a point of great geological interest, and because the road back was passing right by it! ¬†The former Coumiac quarry has been designated a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and¬†Point (GSSP). ¬†Wikipedia defines the GSSP as follows: “A Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, abbreviated GSSP, is an internationally agreed upon reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geologic time scale. The effort to define GSSPs is conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Most, but not all, GSSPs are based on paleontological changes. Hence GSSPs are usually described in terms of transitions between different faunal stages, though far more faunal stages have been described than GSSPs. The GSSP definition effort commenced in 1977. As of 2012, 64 of the 101 stages that need a GSSP have been formally defined.”

At Coumiac we are in the upper Devonian, at the transition between the Frasnian and the Fammenian. ¬†I can’t make a great deal of sense of the scientific explanation, but the rocks are¬†spectacular to behold! ¬†The quarry is only a short walk from the car park beside the road. Two¬†viewing platforms have been created to allow visitors safe access to the site.

The first glimpse of the quarry is of the GSSP Рa huge slab of rock, covered in thousands of fossilised goniatites (prehistoric snail-like creatures), killed during what is called the Kellwasser event.

The quarry was in operation until 1965, with a type of ‘griotte’ marble being extracted – a red marble with small inclusions of white. ¬†An example of a fireplace made of griotte marble can be found at Acanthus in Saint-Chinian.

Here is a closer view of the GSSP slab:

All in all, this was a very interesting day, and I learnt a lot!! ¬†Do let me know if I have mis-translated any of the geological jargon, I’ll be happy to correct it!

Dates for your diary

Courses Camarguaises – May to October 2017

If you want to see a bull-fight, but are not into blood sports, then a course camarguaise is for you!  The bull always leaves the ring alive, and the men in the ring have to be very nimble on their feet.  I wrote about one such bull-fight here, and you can find all the dates on the official website.

European museum night – 20 May 2017

Since 2005, European museum night has been enchanting visitors every year. ¬†It’s a free event, which gives¬†visitors the chance to discover the treasures of museums all over Europe in different ways. ¬†You’ll be able to find the whole programme on¬†this site¬†.

Les Feeries du Pont, Pont du Gard – 2, 3, 9 and 10 June 2017

The Pont du Gard like you’ve never seen it before – lit up with flames¬†and¬†fireworks. ¬†It’s an unforgettable show, and I was lucky to see it some years ago! ¬†More information via this link.

Pont du Gard

Vente de Charite, Saint-Chinian – 4 June 2017

This is a fixture on Saint-Chinian’s calendar of events – a sale of bric-a-brac, plants, clothes, second-hand household items, books and more, all sold for a good cause. ¬†The sale takes place in the abbatiale, the former abbey church in Saint-Chinian, and in the cloisters, and it is open until noon.

Balade Gourmande, Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – 4 June 2017

This gourmet walk has become a very successful and enjoyable annual event.  I went on this gourmet walk back in 2015 and enjoyed it very much.  If you want to give it a try yourself, you can find out more via this link.

A wonderfully fragrant spot

A wonderfully fragrant spot

Fete de la Musique, all over Europe – 21 June 2017

Don’t miss this wonderful celebration of music all over France. ¬†It’s a great¬†occasion to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve written about some of my experiences¬†here¬†and¬†here. ¬†The official website for the event can be found via this link.

Fesitval de Carcassonne – 1 to 30 July 2017

Once again, Carcassonne is hosting an array of famous French singers and musicians during its summer festival!  For the full programme visit here.

Re-opening of the Fonserannes site, Beziers, 1 July 2017

The site around the staircase lock at Fonserannes on the Canal du Midi, on the edge of Beziers, has been given a complete makeover!  I am looking forward to when the site re-opens again in its new splendour.  The staircase lock is a marvel of engineering and worth a visit if you are in the area!

Feria de Beziers – 12 to 15 August 2017

With four days of bodegas, parties and bull fights, the feria in Beziers attracts visitors from all over.  If bull fights are not your thing, the party atmosphere in the town in the early evening is lovely to experience, with pop-up restaurants bars everywhere.  You can find out more via this link.

Fete du Fil, Labastide Rouairoux – 14 and 15 August 2017

This fete is a must for lovers of all things textile.  The textile museum will be open to visitors free of charge, there will be several exhibitions and the flea market.  Full details on https://lafetedufil.jimdo.com/

Fete de Saint-Louis, Sete – 17 to 22 August 2017

The Fete de Saint-Louis celebrates the patron saint of Sete with five days of concerts, street performances and the all-important water jousting tournament!  Full details can be found via this link.

Start of La Vuelta, Nimes – 19 August 2017

La Vuelta is Spain’s answer to the Tour de France, and this year the city of Nimes hosts the first stage of this race. ¬†A must for all lovers of cycling!

 

 

Time to dine

To follow¬†up last week’s post about customs in French restaurants, I thought it would be appropriate to whet your appetite with some food pictures!! ¬†WARNING – if you are feeling hungry, do not read any further – have something to eat first!! ūüôā

The first meal in this post was at Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois. ¬†The kitchen at Auberge de l’Ecole is run by Brigitte – her¬†style of food¬†is down-to-earth regional cooking, and her cassoulet is very good and highly recommended! ¬†Here are three starters:

Salad with goats cheese, smoked duck breast and pears

Beef carpaccio

Marinated sardines

Main courses:

Brigitte’s famous cassoulet

Braised lamb shank – very tender!

Grilled squid with Persillade (parsley and garlic)

L’Ecailler Gourmet in Narbonne is a restaurant which serves fish – and only fish – there’s no meat on the menu! ¬†What they serve depends on the catch, and so the fish is always very fresh, and always expertly cooked! ¬†A¬†nice touch in this restaurant is the fact that they bring the fish to the table before it is cooked, so you can drool over what you’ll get while you wait ūüôā

Fresh fish for three!

Gratinated oysters

Salmon mousse duo – smoked and fresh salmon

The main courses were beautifully presented and the fish oh-so-good!!

Swordfish steaks

Mixed grill – salmon, cod and prawn

Grilled sea bream fillets

Desserts are always important to me РI adore them!  The desserts in the pictures below tasted every bit as good as they looked!!

Variation on banoffee pie

Peach and strawberry soup

Fresh strawberries with strawberry sauce

The Guinguette du Chichoulet restaurant is right by the water, on the marina at Port Chichoulet, near Vendres Plage.

The food was simple, and service was very friendly!

Marinated sardines

A selection of deep fried food – squid rings, prawns and potoatoes

The mussels were plump and juicy, and the prawns cooked just so.

Moules mariniere

Grilled prawns

The bar/restaurant Le Vernazobre in Saint-Chinian was taken over by Murielle and Jeremy in autumn last year. ¬†For the moment, food is served only at lunchtime, but during the summer months they will be serving food in the evenings too. ¬†I’ve been a number of times recently, and have enjoyed my meal each time. ¬†The choice of dishes on the menu is¬†small, and the food is simple¬†and¬†well prepared.

Pate

Salad with tuna fish and hard boiled eggs

Goat’s cheese parcel

I was assured that the steak was tender – and it was very good indeed!

Grilled steak

Pork chop with creamy sauce

Seafood pie

Have you tried any of these restaurants yourself or any others in this area that you especially liked??  Do you have any tips to share??