Music, music, music…

In 1982 the first Fete de la Musique took place in France, and it quickly turned into an institution which is still going strong 31 years later!  It takes place each year on June 21 –  the shortest night of the year is ideal for partying!  All over France there is music and more music, and people getting together to enjoy.  Pretty much every village or smaller town has at least one event to mark the Fete de la Musique;  I decided to visit Beziers with a few friends and together we enjoyed a totally musical evening.

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We started off at the Eglise St Jacques, just a few steps away from the Musee du Bitterois.  The church was hosting a number of events and we got there in time to listen to the guitar ensemble from the Beziers conservatoire.  They played very well and the music chosen was a delight.  The interior of the church was fascinating, and a little reading of the information panels at the back of the church gave some clues.  The Romanesque church had been much changed over the centuries to the point where it was hardly recognisable as Romanesque.  In 1960 a fire which started in a confessional (don’t ask!) meant that the interior of the church was totally destroyed.   During the work to safeguard and restore the building most of the later additions were stripped away, leaving a very stark but serene interior, which has nice acoustics.  The stained glass windows have just been installed, made by master craftsmen from Chartres.  Walk around the back of the church and you’ll find the small park which was closed on my last visit.  Definitely worth a walk – the views are amazing!

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From the St Jacques neighbourhood we went on a little walk via the remains of the amphitheatre (my friends had not seen that), and back into the centre of Beziers.  At the Hotel du Lac we came across the Symphony Orchestra of the Beziers Conservatoire, and then we went on to the Allees Paul Riquet, where we stopped for a bite to eat, just by the Theatre.  The couscous looked very good and it tasted delicious!

Just behind the theatre at the top end of the Allees Paul Riquet the drummers La Bande de Beziers gave it their all.  I taped the entire piece – be warned it’s 16 minutes long, so you may just want to listen to some of it.

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On we went to Place de la Madeleine to listen to the Jersey Julie Band.  They played a great mix of bluegrass, country, and folk music, heavily influenced by blues.  Julie is an amazing bundle of energy, who just draws the crowd along!

When Julie and her band finally took their leave, another group, Awek, started up right across from the stage, in the Blues Caravan.

After a bit of blues we went on to the Cathedrale Saint Nazaire and on the way came across a scene almost out of a Van Gogh painting, down the winding back streets with the twinkling lights overhead.  All the restaurants were busy and there was of course music here too.  On Place de la Révolution we listened to Cobla Tues Vents playing traditional Catalan music and watched a sardane being danced.

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On to the cathedral, where we were hoping to see someone jump across the Feu de St Jean (it’s a local tradition to jump across the fire).  Alas when we got there we were pretty much on our own, even though the fire was still burning in the cloisters.  It did look absolutely beautiful, and the atmosphere was gorgeous and serene.  

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We wended our way back to the Allees Paul Riquet and towards the car, and on the way caught some more music on the main stage in front of the theatre.  The whole square was buzzing and animated, and it was just wonderful to be immersed in that happy feeling.

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So mark your diary for next year – June 21 is definitely a great day to be in France – you’ll be bound to find some music to listen to!

A note to all of you who are subscribed to the blog by e-mail:  The youtube videos embedded in the post will unfortunately not show up in the e-mail version.  To watch and listen please go to the post at http://www.midihideaways.wordpress.com

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Carcassonne and Cassoulet

It’s been some time since I’ve been to La Cité in Carcassonne, I probably got a bit “Carcassonned-out” during the first few years, visiting with most of family and friends who came to stay.  So when I took family back to the airport at Carcassonne I decided to give it another go.  It was as beautiful as ever, and as you can see from the pictures the skies had that bright blue quality which is almost unreal.

The car park at the top, nearest the Porte Narbonnaise, appeared to be closed for works, but I’d managed to park further down the road, just across from this gorgeous timber-framed building, and the stroll up the hill just makes the ramparts that more impressive.  It was about 10.30am and the crowds were thronging already – it was French half term.

A little history about Carcassonne: the current fortress was built over an earlier Roman building and was besieged by Simon de Montfort during the Cathar crusades, and eventually taken in 1209.  That was because the Viscount of Toulouse, Raymond de Trencavel, was sheltering Cathars and refused to hand them over – something had to be done about that!.  The “new town” below La Cité was re-built as a bastide on the orders of Saint Louis in 1247, and then burnt down again by the black prince in 1355.  The fortress was a stronghold along the Franco-Spanish border until the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when it lost its importance.  Economically, the chief commerce of Carcassonne was for centuries the production of woollen cloth. That market collapsed around 1780, but economic life of the town got a boost during the 19th century with new industries and wine growing.

Back to present day Carcassonne though.  Once inside La Cité I took the street up to the Chateau Comtal and the inner ramparts.  I’d been told that the visit of the Chateau included access to the top of the walls now, but once inside the courtyard I quickly abandoned the idea – the queues were just too long.  I will go back some time when it’s not so busy to try that experience.

Instead I took the street to the left of the Chateau, and wandered down to the Porte d’Aude which gives access to the moat between the two rings of fortification.  Today the moat is all flat and dry 😉 and a great way to experience the sheer size of the fortifications.  There are also great views out over the Aude river and the Bastide St Louis.

Close to the Basilica Saint Nazaire there was another way into La Cité which might have been added later for the comfort of the more modern inhabitants – but I may be wrong.

Walking through the narrow streets I came to a square (Place Marcou) which was lined with restaurants pretty much all round, a bit like the food court you would find in a shopping mall, only outdoors and with a medieval feel to it.  I decided on La Bonne Demeure, mostly because it had tables in the sun and had an OK lunch.  I guess pretty much all the restaurants in Carcassonne will be serving average food, there’s just too much temptation to economise, too many customers and only so much in the way of competition.  Don’t be put off though, the food and service were prefectly OK, and I’m sure there are exceptions.  I’m going to look for those on my next visit.  And if you visit Carcassonne, don’t forget the “new” town below La Cité – it’s well worth a visit and almost as old!  What am I writing – if you visit Carcassonne?  No, it should be when you visit Carcassonne!!

Cassoulet is one of those dishes which has a long tradition in the area, and Castelnaudary claims the authentic recipe along with a host of other towns and villages.  When it comes to it though authenticity is not my yardstick – I rate a cassoulet by the way I enjoy it, and there’s one which I’ve enjoyed over and over:  Brigitte’s at the Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois.

I went with a group of people not long ago, and Brigitte had prepared a simple menu around the cassoulet for us all.  A simple salad of mixed leaves and goats cheese with pesto to start with, and Dame Blanche for dessert – ice cream with chocolate sauce.  For the couple of non-meat eaters in our group she’d prepared some salmon filet with a potato cake, but the cassoulet was just divine, brought to the table bubbling and fragrant!  Perhaps one of these days I may be able to persuade Brigitte to teach me how to make her version of Cassoulet…?

And here’s the gallery of all pictures in this post along with a lot which I’ve not inserted between the text – hope you enjoy this visit!

A ride on the yellow train

A few weeks back I was headed for Villefranche-de-Conflent in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  The reason?  To ride the famous Train Jaune or Canari as it is also called.  I set off early in the morning to catch the 9.50 from Villefranche to Latour-de-Carol, from a drizzly St Chinian.  I had family staying, and we’d decided that if we didn’t go that day we’d never make it, so despite the dismal weather we were on our way.  As we got nearer Perpignan the rain stopped and it got a little brighter, although no blue skies in sight.  The station in Villefranche has an enormous car park, but since it was out of season we were one of the first to arrive and patiently queued up behind the rope.

Once the driver and the guard had arrived we boarded the train and managed to get seats in the one open carriages – yess!!  Whilst waiting we had debated the merits of being in the open at length, but decided the views would be well worth it!
And soon we were on our way, climbing into the Pyrenees, past villages, looking down into ravines and past abandoned stations.  The railway line was built in the early 1900s with the aim to connect the Cerdagne region to the rest of France.  Planning had started in 1800s but the complications of the terrain and the intervening first world war meant that the last section from Bourg-Madame to Latour-de-Carol was only opened in 1927.

As we continued our climb the clouds started to lift and bit by bit it got warmer!  The last picture above is of Le Pont Séjourné, one of the most famous bridges along the line. Unfortunately from the train you don’t get to see the full extent of this impressive structure, it’s better viewed from the road :-(.

But the views more than made up for that, as we were leaving the clouds behind us.  The line is single track for most of its length, so the up and down trains have to pass one another at certain stations along the way.  Here we are at Fontpedrouse, waiting for the down train.

After a short stop, to allow passengers to change trains and for the drivers and guards to have a chat and a cigarette, we were on our way once more.

The Pont Gisclard is a suspension bridge, 80m above the river Tet, built between 1905 and 1908, in a particularly difficult spot.  Getting 873 tonnes of steel to the middle of nowhere is no mean feat!

Et voila, we have arrived at Mont-Louis, where we board the down train!  On the winter timetable the wait between trains can be around 4 hours, and with the weather starting to cloud over we decided not to take a chance.  Mont-Louis is very close to the highest railway station at Bolquere (1593m), but we’ll explore that another time!  Oh and can you guess why the train is nicknamed Le Canari?

Red and yellow are the Catalan colours, and we were in the midst of French Catalunya.  Oh, and I’ve forgotten the tunnels – there are a good many of them, and they are great fun – everyone in the open cars took pictures of one-another in the dark and some howled :-)!  The little huts along the way were built as a means of turning off the electric current on sections of the line.  The trains are powered by means of a third rail and 850 Volt.  On the left of the picture above you can just see the hydroelectric power station which generates the electricity needed for the trains.

Here’s another view of the Pont Séjourné, and below the ancient bridge across the Tet river, linking Villefranche-de-Conflent to the fort on the hillside above.

I leave you here with a picture of the rocks above the station in Villefranche – the rocks have the most wonderful colouring, they almost glow.  The Train Jaune is definitely a trip to take at some time; if you suffer from vertigo you can always sit inside in one of the covered carriages.
I’ll tell you about my visit of Villefranche in another post…

Knights in shining armour and New York?

What do the two have in common?  The answer is at the end of this post 🙂  !  Each year in mid September France along with most of Europe celebrates its heritage; museums are open free of charge, there are guided visits, and often buildings which are not accessible to the public offer visits.  In honour of the occasion the village of Olargues put on a Fete Medievale this year, and I just couldn’t resist to see what it was all about!  Olargues is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and when you approach from the direction of St Pons the view from across the river is just gorgeous.

On this picture you don’t quite get the full effect, the branch is obscuring the tower at the top of the hill, the only remainder of the château which once stood there. Anyhow, Olargues has plenty to remind us of its medieval past, such as the small narrow streets, and the remains of the gates into the village.

All along the “main street” through the old village, market stalls had been set up, selling all manner of things.

I was particularly taken by the nougat – can you tell?  It’s made with lavender honey and almonds and there were all kinds of flavours:  pistachio, fig and date, cinnamon and orange, chestnut, caramel….

The chapel in the former headquarters of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (there must be a better name for them in English?) was open and in the courtyard one of the associations of the village had set up tables selling spiced wine and cider.

Eventually I came to the square where the MEDIO EVO group had set up camp.  Beautiful tents, and just opposite a spit roast – in readiness for the communal meal.

The communal dinner looked great, but I’d already made other plans.  As I arrived there sat a knight waiting for his adversary.

Soon enough someone showed up, and they went for it – very good fighting with swords…

After all that excitement there was still time for a little more walking around Olargues, and more to discover of course.

On the drive back home I caught the most stunning view of Caroux, fabulous blue skies!

And then on along the way I took a little detour via New York!

There she stands, Lady Liberty in all her splendour!  And in the village of Lugne!  A plaque on the pedestal explains that this scale copy of th statue of Liberty graced the bow on the Maxim’s des Mers in 1987 (perhaps on a voyage to New York?), and that the captain of the ship, Albert Abelanet is a native of the village.  From the meager info I could find on the net, the Maxim’s des Mers was a small luxury cruise ship designed by Pierre Cardin.  And there you have it all!

Going potty

For two days in August the village of Salleles d’Aude hosts a potters’ market, with potters from near and far exhibiting their wares.  The range is wide, from everyday traditional dishes to very artistic creations and everything in between.  The market always takes place on the 14th and 15th of August, and I can always find yet another piece to buy; this year I purchased a couple of bowls, perfect for serving nibbles in!

One of the highlights of the market for me is the demonstration of how a potter would have made pots in Roman times – not all that easy I imagine!

The reason for the demonstration is that just outside the village is Amphoralis, a museum dedicated to the Roman pottery village which once existed there.  Excavations of the site started in 1976, and over the years the archaeologists have discovered what was one of the largest sites in France for the production of pottery during the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.  After 17 years of excavations a total of 17 kilns had been discovered, as well as the sites of various workshops, houses, clay pits, wells etc. To make all the finds accessible to the larger public a museum was built on part of the site, and opened in 1992.  The design is reminiscent of a butterfly with outstretched wings.  The central body contains exhibition space, offices and workshops, and the wings float over the site, protecting the exposed  artifacts from the elements, whilst walkways above the excavations allow visitors to look directly down.  All very clever!

The visit of the museum starts with a film which explains the history of the site in Roman and modern times.  The film also showcases an exciting experiment which started about 10 years ago:  the reconstruction of one of the kilns on the site, with the aim of firing pottery as the Roman potters would have. Over the years the kiln has been used a good few times, firing a range of items such as roof tiles, pots, jugs, bricks and more.  Some of the items such as bowls, jugs and oil lamps can be bought at the museum, others such as the roof tiles and bricks are being used in the reconstruction of buildings on the site.

After you’ve completed your visit of the museum, you can walk around the rest of the site.  Wander along the marked route and see where some of the clay came from, remains of the aqueduct which supplied the village with water, until you come to first of the reconstructed buildings, which houses a bread oven (seemingly used regularly).  The building next door shelters two replicas of smaller kilns.

The larger building a little further on is the workshop and also shelters the large kiln.  On the day I visited, someone was showing how bricks were made, with the help of a form.  First the inside of the frame is wiped with a damp sponge, and then dusted with wood ash, to help release the clay.  The form is then placed on a board, also dusted with wood ash (from kiln firings), and then the soft clay is thrown in, to ensure that there are no air pockets.  Bit by bit the form fills up and then a wooden stick is used to scrape off of the excess and to level the brick.  The form is then lifted carefully, tapped a little on its side, and the finished brick slid on to a little board and set aside to dry.  Drying takes several days and the bricks have to be turned regularly during the process.

   
   

The path leads on to the next building, a reconstruction of a building where the potters might have lived: a beautifully made, wood-framed barn of a building, with a thatched roof.  The walls are filled in with a variety of materials: partly woven with twigs and covered with earth/clay, partly filled in with bricks.  Inside, at one end of the building is a reconstruction of what the living quarters might have looked like – sparse!

The visit continues past the potters’ garden – a somewhat overgrown maze of beds growing plants which would have been known to the Romans.  By then the the skies were turning very dark and threatening – the famous orage du quinze aout was looming – so I didn’t linger, and once back in the car the heavens opened.  Time for a little reflection on what life must have been like 2000 years ago…

Merrily we float along

This week’s post combines water and food – while friends and family were visiting we took a boat cruise on the Canal du Midi from Colombiers.  “Le Bonpas” is a former hire boat, which has been converted into a beautiful open plan barge for short cruises.  We had decided on a dinner cruise, and met Paule and Rene at 6.45pm one evening in the port of Colombiers.  After the requisite handshakes and introductions we raised anchor and set off, all of us seated in the open area at the bow, watching the trees glide by.  Rene was telling us about the canal, and I’m (almost) ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten most of the figures.  Some of the facts stick in my mind, such as that a large contingent of the workforce who built the canal were women.  The men were digging and shovelling, but the women carried the excavated earth away in baskets – no wheelbarrows in the 17th century!  Rene also told us about mosquitoes in the canal – there are none!  The leaves from the plane trees drop into the water, where they sit and decompose over the space of about three years.  During that process they release gases which stop mosquito larvae from hatching, so no mosquito population in the canal, and since I did not get any stings it must be true :-).  As we were sipping our aperitifs and Rene was entertaining us, Paule was busy at the back of the boat getting dinner ready. But before that we went through the Tunnel de Malpas, one of the many engineering feats along the canal.  The tunnel was dug through the Enserune hill without the help of any machines or dynamite!  Today three tunnels pass through the hill: the oldest one, constructed in medieval times, to drain the Etang de Montady; the most recent tunnel runs just below the canal and carries the high-speed train line!Soon enough we were called to table.  Paule had prepared a vegetable mousse for us, which was served in little individual porcelain dishes, accompanied by a salad.  For the children she’d prepared a tomato and mozzarella salad.  For main course we had chosen in advance from:  Gardiane de Taureau (a tender beef casserole),  Supreme de Canette (roast duckling quarter) or Pave de Saumon (salmon fillet).  All the main courses were accompanied by gratinated potatoes, which I adored.  After that we had a selection of cheeses, and finally there was dessert once we had turned around to head back to port.  Baba au Rhum is a typically French dessert – a brioche like cake which is soaked in a sirup laced with rum and topped with some whipped cream.  For the children the alcohol was of course omitted!The sun was setting as we were nearing Colombiers, and the reflections on the water were beautiful.  Floating along on the water at that time of day was just magical, and we were all sad when our little cruise came to an end.

You may have heard that the plane trees along the Canal du Midi will not be there all that much longer.  Unfortunately there is a fungus which attacks the plane tree, and in the space of about five years the tree dies.  The fungus is transmitted by water and air and there is no cure.  In time all the old trees will have to be cut down and replaced by young saplings, which are resistant to the fungus.  So, do come and visit the Canal du Midi soon, while most of its glory is still alive and intact, be it for a walk or bike ride in the shade, or a little boat trip.