Sailing again

If you have visited Saint-Chinian, you’ll probably know that there is a windmill standing on the hill above the village.  It was reconstructed as a fully functional windmill from a ruin a good many years ago.  During the summer months, volunteers from the association Richesses du St Chinianais used to offer guided visits and would make the windmill turn if there was enough wind.

Unfortunately, at some point the rot set in – in the main beam which held the sails and acted as the drive shaft.  One day, a couple of years ago, the beam just snapped off, and the four sails dropped to the ground.  It was a sad day for the village, but at least nobody was hurt.

The sails were put into storage, whilst experts looked at ways of repairing the windmill.  In the end, it was decided to re-make the sails and the external part of the drive shaft with steel rather than wood.  To my mind it’s been a surprisingly successful repair – you can’t really tell the difference even from just a few meters away.

With the sails replaced, the windmill was opened to visitors again last summer, and the volunteers from Les Richesses gave guided tours once more!  The day I visited, I arrived early enough to watch the sails being unfurled.  I shot a video, which gives you an idea of the tranquility of the spot, and what is required to get this windmill operational!

There was no wind on the day I visited, so unfortunately the sails would not turn.  But don’t be disappointed!  I did write about the windmill back in June 2013,  and I included videos of the windmill turning in that post – you can read the post here.

On your next visit to Saint-Chinian, don’t forget to have a look at the windmill – it’s worth the drive or walk for the views alone!!

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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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Now you see it, now you dont!

One recent sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove to the village of Aigues Vives for a guided visit around the river Cesse.  A fairly large group of people had gathered on the square in front of the town hall – perhaps because the weather was so beautifully sunny?

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Once the guides had settled who would do what, we started on our walk towards the riverbed.

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When you are in Aigues Vives, the river Cesse is nowhere in evidence.  But head north, along Avenue de la Cesse, and you’ll see signs that the river isn’t far away!

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As you leave the village, the road gently slopes down to the riverbed.  At the bottom of the hill we took a left, and soon we were standing on the banks of the Cesse.  It looks a bit dry, wouldn’t you agree?

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Here’s the guide who explained why there was no water in the river:IMG_4020

It was a rather fascinating explanation!  The Cesse can be divided into three distinct sections, the upper, middle and lower sections.  The upper section, from which the river springs, in Ferrals-les-Montagnes, resembles a mountain torrent which runs pretty much all year.  About 16 km downstream from the source, at a place called Moulin de Monsieur, the middle section starts, and the river appears to dry up.  The middle section is about 20 km long and ends at Moulin de Madame, where the river resurfaces again.  The lower river flows all year round from Moulin de Madame through Bize Minervois and on to join the Aude river at Salleles d’Aude.

We were looking at the middle section of the Cesse, and on average this part of the river is dry two-thirds of the year.  That’s not to say that there is no water at all.  The area is made up of limestone, and over millennia the water has carved away at the stone.  If you drive to Minerve, you’ll get a good idea of just how much has been cut away.  The theory is that the river runs underground in the middle section, and only surfaces when there is enough water to fill up the river bed.  That usually happens during winter when it has rained enough.

Just to give you an idea of what it can look like, here is a picture of La Caunette, taken a few years ago, at a time when there was plenty of water:

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And here are some pictures (also from a few years ago) when there was water flowing just outside Agel, downstream from Aigues Vives.  This was taken not far away from Moulin de Madame, and you can see the old dam and a sluice gate for the mill.

Let’s track back to our walk in Aigues Vives though.  The walk continued along the river, and we came to a place where you could see what looked like two big piles of stones, on either side of the river.  One of our guides explained that they were the remains of a footbridge, which had been built in the 17th century.  Wooden walkways rested on a central pillar in the riverbed, and allowed people to cross to the other side, even at times of high water.  Unfortunately, the central pillar was swept away by the floods during the winter of 1999, and with it the bridge.  The force of water is not to be underestimated!!

The path turned away from the river and we started to walk through the vineyards.  Even though the vines are dormant right now, the vineyards can look so pretty!!

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Where one vineyard ends another one starts, but sometimes they are interspersed with a few almond trees such as these:

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There’s nothing as beautiful as white blossoms against a bright blue sky on a spring day!

After our walk I had some time to wander around the back streets of Aigues Vives.  As in Puisserguier (see last week’s post), I had never really stopped to explore the village. It has an interesting mix of old and older buildings!

I wonder if the name of this road means that it can be windy here??

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These two beauties were enjoying a nap in the sunshine.

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They were very happy to pose for the camera!! 🙂

The bakery which this sign points to has long been closed, unfortunately.

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But I came across the restaurant below, the Auberge Minervoise, which is very much open for business.  I’ve put it on my list of restaurants to try!

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So there you have it – a wonderful afternoon walk, with plenty of interesting information!

 

 

A gourmet walk

The small village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is home to one of the oldest AOCs of the Languedoc region.  AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Controlee – a geographical quality certification.  The wines of the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois are sweet wines, produced from the muscat grape, with a high amount of residual sugar.  Fermentation is stopped by adding alcohol, before the yeasts have had time to consume all the sugar.  The result is an amazingly fragrant sweet wine, which should be well chilled before drinking.  The growers also produce a number of other wines, such as dry muscat (white), rose and red wines, which are not classified under the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.

On June 7th, 2015 the winegrowers of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois organised their second Balade Gourmande, a gourmet walk; last year (2014) was the first time they had organised this kind of event.  A Balade Gourmande is a walk with a number of stops along the way, where you eat and/or drink, allowing you to enjoy the countryside without having to schlep the picnic!  Numbers were limited to 300 persons, and for this year’s event, the participants were assigned a time to depart in groups of around 30.  A guide or two led each group, to ensure that nobody got lost on the walk through the vineyards.  I had booked with a few friends and we had been assigned the first departure at 11am.  Somewhat early, I thought, but as it turned out it was perfect!

reception area for the walk

The reception area for the walk

The reception area was just across the road from the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, and there were plenty of parking spaces.  Upon registration every participant was issued with their walking “kit”:  A yellow hat, a glass with a kind harness to hang around the neck (very important 🙂 ), a book of vouchers for the food we were to eat along the way, a pen, a set of cutlery, a napkin, and a booklet giving details of all the food and wine, along with prices of the wine, and contact details of the domaines.

Soon everyone was wearing their hats and getting quite excited!

Getting ready for the walk

Getting ready for the walk

 

Our guides were Anne and Karine, both of them winegrowers with an intimate knowledge of the terroir.

meeting our guides

Meeting our guides

The walk was about 6km long, and there were stops approx. each kilometer, either for something to eat or…

So off we went:

The vineyards at the start of the walk

The vineyards at the start of the walk

The trail was well signposted, just in case anyone struggled to keep up or had to take a little break.

Signpost along the way

Signpost along the way

Our first stop was for a welcome drink:  a glass of sparkling Muscat sec.

After a brief rest, we followed our guides as they led us down little known tracks – only someone who had spent their entire lives here could be truly familiar with them all!

Walking along the vineyards

Walking along the vineyards

I could not resist this lovely clump of poppies along the way:

poppies along the way

Poppies along the way

You’ll notice the white rocks surrounding the poppies.  The area of the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is on a limestone plateau, and the sun bleaches the rocks to an almost pure white.  It is quite a dazzling sight!

We next came to another dazzling sight – one of the canyons which cross the plateau:

Canyon crossing the limestone plateau

Canyon crossing the limestone plateau

And here is a vineyard with the typical “white” look.

A typical Saint-Jean-de-Minervois vineyard

A typical Saint-Jean-de-Minervois vineyard

Before long we reached our first Etape Gourmande, a food stop!  This was where we would eat the starter:

First "Etape Gourmande"

First “Etape Groumande” – starter

A tent had been set up, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and the chefs from Les Cuisiniers Cavistes in Narbonne were hard a work to prepare our starters:

The starter was named Du Causses a la Mediterranee” – a crispy puff pastry base covered with sheep’s cheese (from the Causses), topped with crunchy vegetables and pieces of home-smoked fish (from the Mediterranee).  The whole was dressed with a vinaigrette prepared with vinegar made with Muscat.   It was a very delicious morsel!!

"Du Causses a la Mediterranee"

“Du Causses a la Mediterranee”

Wines from Domaine Montahuc, Domaine de Barroubio, Clos du Gravillas, Domaine Marcon and Cave le Muscat were there to accompany the starter.

Nicely chilled wines

Nicely chilled wines

After this very pleasant break we continued on our walk.

Walking through the vineyards

Walking through the vineyards

Our next stop was a Halte Artistique, a break to rest and enjoy some art.  In this case it was music:

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I took a video for you also – e-mail subscribers, please remember to visit the site for the video.

There was chilled water available, both still and fizzy.  Suitably refreshed and rested, we headed off to find the next stop! 🙂  On the way we passed a wonderfully fragrant spot – Spanish broom was flowering all around us, almost intoxicating us with its beautiful fragrance.

A wonderfully fragrant spot

A wonderfully fragrant spot

Before long we reached the next stop – the second Etape Gourmande, where we were to be served our main course.

2nd "Etape Groumande" - main course

2nd “Etape Groumande” – main course

The installation was very impressive – a covered seating area with big kitchen area behind, AND there were toilets!

The title of the main course was “De L’Aubrac au Causse”.  The Aubrac region is famous for raising high quality beef and we were served a piece of beef filet with a sauce prepared with Grenache (wine) and veal jus, accompanied by spring vegetables.  The beef was perfectly cooked and ever so tender – I’m salivating at the memory of it!!

Main course being served

The main course being served

Looking through my pictures I realised – horror of horrors – that I do not have a picture of the main course!!  “Oh no” – I can hear you say – “how could that have happened??”  Perhaps I was too distracted by the lady who was singing popular French chansons whilst accompanying herself on the accordion.

Accordionist

The accordionist

Wines were provided by all the wineries previously mentioned, plus in addition, Domaine du Sacre Coeur.

After this wonderful interlude, our guides led us to a marvellous spot.  From the top of one of Karine’s vineyards we had the most wonderful view over the whole area covered by the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.

View towards Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

View towards Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

We were now well past lunchtime, and you can see a bit of a build-up of clouds in the above picture.  Over on the far left it started to look a little black, but the sun was still shining!!

Our next stop was another Halte Artistique and there was more music.  In a shady copse, benches, deck chairs and even a hammock had been set up, so we could rest our weary legs and relax with some music.

relaxing music

Relaxing music

Here is a video for you:

After the rest and relaxation we were ready to walk onwards to our next Etape Gourmande: the cheese course!

3rd "Etape Gourmande" - Cheese

3rd “Etape Gourmande” – cheese

A selection of three cheeses were accompanied by Muscat from Domaines Barroubio and Montahuc and Cave Le Muscat.

Cheese Course

Cheese course

The two goat’s cheeses were from Combebelle near Villespassans; the blue cheese was a Fourme d’Ambert and served with a muscat jelly.  Below is Anne Camelot from Combebelle with a helper.

Cheese course being prepared

Cheese course being prepared

It looked as though the storm building in the distance was headed our way, so we needed no encouragement from our guides to get to the next and ultimate Etape Gourmande: Dessert!!

Final "Etape Gourmande" - dessert

Final “Etape Gourmande” – dessert

The chefs were busy putting the final touches on our desserts.

Desserts being prepared

Desserts being prepared

The title of the dessert was Quand St Jean devoile son exotisme”.  Dessert was an exotic composition of tender sponge cake, mascarpone with passion fruit, and roasted mango and pineapple, served with a mango and passion fruit coulis.  With that there were three different muscats to choose from – perfect harmony and sheer bliss!!

Exotic and tasty dessert

Exotic and tasty dessert

All too soon it was time to move on and return to the reception area and the car park.  On the way I photographed the remains of the windmill near the Cooperative winery in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  The light was extraordinary!

Ruined windmill in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

Ruined windmill in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

Back at the reception area there was coffee and a tasting of spirits from the Distillerie du Petit Grain.  I was lucky and did not have to drive that day.  Their Gin is absolutely exquisite!  All of the wines we had tasted throughout our walk could be bought at the end.

end of our gourmet walk

The end of our gourmet walk

What a wonderful day!!  The storm which brewed in the distance, and which made for such dramatic skies, stayed in the distance, and we didn’t get wet!!  🙂  I came home with some wonderful wines, and I am planning to sign up for next year’s walk!!  Why don’t you join me?  If you want to stay close by, you can rent L’Ancien Cafe in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

Follow the blue line

Spring has arrived in earnest in Languedoc, and I think it is high time that I shared some of the marvels of nature with you – all too soon spring will turn into summer :)!!

Earlier this week, I went for a walk with my camera and a couple of friends.  The walk started on what had been the old road which connected Saint-Chinian with Cebazan.  Have a look at the map below – I parked the car at the “purple” crossroads, where you see 241.  Here is a link to the map at Geoportail, in case you want to explore a little more.  The purple line which loops around and passes 229 and 277 follows the walk we took.

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The markings along the walk are in blue, hence the title of this post.

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And here is the first of many plants which are in full flower right now: euphorbia.  I will try to give you plant names wherever possible, but my knowledge of wildflowers is somewhat limited.

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Not long into the walk there are some spectacular views of Cebazan in the distance.

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The scenery is beautiful!, Unfortunately, the camera does not really do it justice.  More flowers along the way: a different type of euphorbia, and my first sighting, this year, of cistus flowers, and spanish broom.  The long spears are the buds of spanish broom, just before it bursts into flower.  Another week or so, and the hillsides will be covered with fragrant, yellow blooms!

Here is another view, down the valley, in the general direction of Cebazan.  These are the ruins of a rather large building, with the walls of a tower still standing.  There’s a little window in the attic part of the tower – it might have been for a pigeon loft.  If you look carefully, there’s a rim of slate all the way around the outside, perhaps to stop rodents climbing up the walls?

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Here is some wild thyme, with almost pure white flowers.  Usually thyme flowers are pink. I wonder if it has to do with the mineral content of the soil?

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The next part of the walk involved a long-ish climb over a very rocky track.  It was almost as if someone had poured a huge amount of limestone rocks down the side of the hill.  In all likelihood, the stones were cleared from the surrounding fields in times gone by, and simply piled up, forming a river of stone.

At the top of the climb we rejoined a more level path, and although this shrub was not flowering, its berries looked lovely.  The plant is a juniperus oxycedrus, and whilst the berries are not the juniper berries used to flavour gin and various other European dishes, they are comestible if used very ripe.

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Next we came to a beautiful capitelle, one of the shelters built from only the stones found nearby, and without any mortar!  This is the capitelle marked on the map, just above Le Bousquet.

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I had walked past the capitelle in February, and made a mental note to come back when the almond trees were in flower, but somehow the note got mis-filed.  🙂  It is still very pretty with the trees just leaving out.

The path then rounded a corner, and became more open as it passed through some vineyards.  Seeing the vine leaves emerge always cheers me up no end!

More flowers to be seen – none of us knew this plant, and I still don’t know what it is – the leaves are almost like those on an apple or pear tree, only smaller, but the flowers bear no resemblance.  If any of you know, please write the name in the comments box below.

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The path rounded another corner, and there was another capitelle, I guess it’s the second one, which is marked on the map, although there are a few others along the way, some of them half fallen down.

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There was an extra attraction to this capitelle – I am not going to hazard a guess as to what make this might have been. 🙂  The body is still very strong – these old cars were incredibly heavy!

The view from the gap in the wall is just wonderful, and it includes my favourite little hut in the middle of the vineyards:

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A semi-abandoned field yielded lots of interesting wildflowers: a tassel hyacinth, two kinds of dandelions, an orchid (cephalantera longifolia), and a clover like flower (anthyllis vulneraria).

Further along there was an asphodel, all by itself:

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This unknown tree or shrub was flowering in an amazing profusion!

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This thyme plant has the more typically pink flowers!  Can you spot the bee?

 

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The almonds are already well advanced:

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And the judas trees are still in full flower:

The path was heading towards the spot where the car was parked.  But there were still some surprises, such as the plant below.  It looks like an orchid, but if I remember from the botanical walk in Cruzy last year, it is a parasite, which grows on the roots of another plant.  Hence the brownish colour, as the plant cannot make any chlorophyll.

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There must have been a fire on this field, perhaps only last year.  The view into the distance is absolutely amazing!

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A little abandoned building along the path…

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… a beautiful blue iris…

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… and some fragrant lilac…

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… and then the path led back to the car!  Except for the climb up the rocky “river” the walk is very easy.  There is a way to bypass that climb, look out for the thin orange/brown line on the map.  At normal speed the walk takes around an hour to complete; with lots of stops to take photographs it took 90 minutes.  On your next visit to St Chinian you should try this walk.  It is well worth it!!

 

Through the vineyards…

This post was kindly written by Margaret Smythe, a long time friend and resident of St Chinian, as well as a dedicated walker!

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It started as a daily exercise routine and has become much more; the exercise part is now almost incidental and the routine is one of pleasure, mostly. So what is this exercise? Well, we are talking about the early morning walk through the vines and gardens of our village, a brisk-ish 45 minute circuit which takes us through history and nature and seasons from equinox to equinox. The route is the same, with minor variations; the routine is the same unless it’s raining: up at 7-ish, out by 7:30, back around 8:15 for much-needed coffee. It’s not an iron discipline; we are not trying to prove anything, but have grown to enjoy it so much that we miss it when it doesn’t happen.

I am going to lead you through our walk on a beautiful spring morning in late May or early June, when these photos were taken. When we begin in March the cold air stings our faces and ears and fingertips but we want to be ready to savor the first signs of spring: slowly day by day buds appear and open, birds begin to chatter and the sun is more than just a lamp in the sky. By the end of April spring has exploded and we have exchanged our hats, gloves, scarves, and heavy coats for sunglasses and jackets.

We set off down Rue de la Digue, towards the Vernazobres river and the scene of a tragic disaster for the village. In 1873 there was a terrible flood which swept away a lot of houses and killed more than 100 people. The ruins of some of the houses remain, now incorporated into gardens. The Digue (a flood protection dyke) was built to prevent this ever happening again. In fact the river was canalized for the part that runs through the village. Now the river is well-behaved and is a peaceful place for swimming and fishing.

Before we get to the ford we stop to look at the three ancient mulberry trees, one of the few remaining signs of the silk industry that went on here until the early 19th century. They still sprout leaves in their ruined condition, but no fruit. Read the plaque.

Here are inaccessible peaches – too bad some are rotting on the ground already – and unripe figs.

After passing the ford and the swimming hole, known as Les Platanettes for its sheltering plane trees, we emerge into the open spaces of the vineyards. Ahead we see the rocky outcrop “la Corne” an important landmark for the village. Wild flowers, olives, a sloping wheat field and vines and more vines. As we tramp along we listen out for the birds: I cannot claim to recognize them all but the cuckoo is obvious and so is the hoopoe with its distinctive four tooting notes. I saw one once, years ago, and long to see another. They are shy and getting rarer to see, they say. We hear nightingales and larks, and sometimes ducks flying over. Photos do not capture too well the beauty of the wild flowers, different ones coming out every week. Have a look at the last lingering poppies struggling to stay red but fading fast.

Soon we are back at the river, this time crossing by a metal bridge, a “passerelle.” At one time I used to drag a bicycle over it with not too much difficulty and there are signs for the routes of rallies for heavy 2-wheelers, mountain bikes and the like, to cross over too. On the other side we come to a group of houses, site of an old woollen mill known as la Rive. Here we meet the first of the dogs – these ones are ferocious barkers and not friendly. La Rive lies at the foot of the Corne which is now very close – we are almost underneath and able to make out the cross on its summit. On the west side, not visible from here, there is a chapel, Notre Dame de Nazareth, with a steep Way of the Cross leading up to it, where people make an annual pilgrimage followed by the habitual feast and verres d’amitie.

Our route is flat however, no harm first thing in the morning. We are now on a paved road for a short stretch until we swerve into the vines again and say hello to the other dogs, the friendly ones – caged for hunting. They always greet us leaping up with wagging tails as if to say let us out to play. The meeting of the waters comes next, that is a place where the canal and the stream meet. The canal disappears into some trees and when we see it again it has started its course along the many gardens leading into the village. It’s a very important feature of the village, which in the late middle ages (1460s) was tamed by the abbot (Abbe) of the local Benedictine monastery to irrigate his vegetable gardens in the center of the village. The monastery now houses the municipal buildings. Today for an annual 32 euro fee owners of the gardens all along its length can join the Association and water their crops. The flow of water is controlled by a number of vannes (sluices) which we show in the photos. For the rest of our walk we are more or less following the course of the canal.

After another stretch of tarmac we take a short cut and say hello to the donkeys who live with some ponies in a field bordering our path. This short cut between the canal and a damp-ish hedge – being near the water — is lined with different kinds of flowers. There are myriads of the wild pink pyramid orchids, wild garlic and earlier in the season yellow irises and kingcups.

Back on the road again we are nearing the village. We turn into the Martinet and pass a row of houses built almost on top of the canal. The machinery at the entrance to Le Martinet was taken from a sulphur mill before it was converted into a modern dwelling. We pass the vegetable gardens and wave to some of the gardeners and then join the top of the digue to view even more gardens.

The plane trees along here have been infected with an unusual canker. You can see the ones destined for the chop. Many have already been felled. The canker apparently came from wooden pallets containing ammunition brought over to France by the US Army at the end of WW2. It has taken all this time, more than 60 years, to destroy the plane trees. The fate of the plane trees along the Canal du Midi is the most disastrous: all 40,000 of them have to go. The trees were originally planted for shade for the horses and people who worked along the canal through the centuries, and also to secure the banks. Today, classified as a UN World Heritage site, it is extra important to replace them, and this work has begun. We see places along the canal now which are bare, bereft of their welcome shade, but with new trees already growing. The replacements are of varied species so as not to risk the same danger another time. Our village is just one of many who have been dealt this blow.

At the top of the Rue de la Digue we take a right down Rue des Jardins, wide enough for only one car at a time, and then a left into Rue du Canal de l’Abbe, nearly home. If you think life before washing machines was too tough, take a look at this ‘washing machine’ – le lavoir, on the edge of the canal. Some French villages have really elaborate lavoirs, washing places, with wonderful architecture. But the best that we can say about this one is that it is unpretentious. I’m told it was used in living memory. It is hard to imagine being on one’s knees, bending over scrubbing at some garment here without falling into the canal. Actually the olden days were not all bad; for example, there was a law on the books of the village that the mill owners could not discharge their effluent into the canal between certain specific hours of the day, which means a definite awareness of taking care of the planet, and/or consideration for the washerwomen.

And so around the next corner we are back at home.

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When you follow the same route every day, naturally you barely notice what has changed from day-to-day. On the other hand a month later it all looks different. Later on in early autumn when the grapes have been picked and the green vine leaves have turned a rainbow of colors from yellow to orange to deep purple, the end of our walking season is signalled by the low autumn sun which transforms the early morning scene into a land of sloping shadows and sudden flashes of light on the hilltops.