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.

img_1899

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.

img_1900

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!

img_6762

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)!

img_0993

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!

img_6767

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.

img_6772

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

img_6773

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

img_0998

img_6787

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!!

img_6794

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

img_6797

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.

img_67982

I saw this beautiful doorway in Fontjun …

img_6803

… 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!

img_6824

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.

img_6826 img_6829

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!

Advertisements

Fall on foot

Autumn is a perfect time of year to go for walks – the weather is usually very good but not too hot, and there is plenty to catch your eye, from the first leaves turning colour to interesting critters, and more.  I went for a 9km hike with friends recently, starting from St Chinian, and thought I’d share this with you.

We started off along the D612, heading out of St Chinian in the direction of St Pons.

P1050093

I imagine that the circle near the top of the gate must have held someone’s initials at some point!  Soon we left the main road and walked along the D176E7, and at Pierre Morte we left the road altogether, and followed a track through the vineyards.

P1050006

The grapes in some vineyards had not been harvested yet, and they tasted deliciously sweet!  In some gardens the tomato plants were still in fine fettle too…

P1050022…and it wasn’t too long before I found my first “interesting critter”.

P1050024

We kept walking towards Bouldoux, and just before you reach the village there is a little hut, with a bench alongside.  I’d come prepared: in my rucksack I had a thermos of tea, some plastic cups and a few biscuits.  Perfection, sipping a cup of tea whilst basking in the sun!  On we went after our brief rest, and there followed a bit of a climb, crossing the main road (D612) and up a little farther.

Another critter picture – this is the caterpillar of a swallowtail butterfly.  I have not been able to find out exactly what kind of swallowtail butterfly it will turn into, but I am sure that it will be beautiful!

After the climb the vegetation changed completely.  Whereas before we had been surrounded by vineyards almost as far as the eye coud see, we were now in more rugged terrain, with lots of brush and some woodland.  And here’s a little surprise:

P1050096

According to my friends, the toaster has been there for some time and it just stands there all by itself.  Why, I thought, but then decided not to pursue that line of thinking :-).

The roses had produced a good crop of hips, and the olives were hanging heavy on the trees.  Around the next bend there was a large kennel, where hunting dogs are being kept.  They all started to howl as we came past, but none of them seemed vicious or hell-bent on chasing us.  They were safely behind fences and we kept a respectful distance.  Not long after we had to make a decision as the path forked.  We took the turn to the right, and I’m glad we did.

P1050099The flowering heather is just so beautiful!

And we came upon this quirky “potager” in the middle of nowhere.  Someone had lovingly created a vegetable garden in the wilderness, and decorated it with upturned terracotta pots.

P1050100

All too soon we were approaching St Chinian, but not before we went through a grove of trees where the lichen were growing abundantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as luxuriant or large as these.

P1050104

And then it was home and time for a drink and some rest!

The hills are alive…

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

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

IMG_8290

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

IMG_8306

We did come across two interesting discoveries:

IMG_8292

IMG_8293

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

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

IMG_8303

IMG_8304

IMG_8309

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

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

P1040560

P1040574

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

IMG_8301

IMG_8302

IMG_8299

IMG_8295

P1040597

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

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

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

P1040628

A walk in the park

On a recent visit to Beziers I had some time to spare and decided to pay a brief visit the Plateau des Poetes, a park at the lower end of the Allees Paul Riquet. The park was created during the second half of the 19th century on a steep, wooded hill, and designed by the landscape architect Eugene Bühler in the English style on nearly 10 acres of land.  There are a few  theories as to origin of the park’s name, but the most likely is supported by the fact that the park is dotted with sculptures and busts of poets and writers born in Beziers.

P1010872

The first and rather striking sculpture I came across was one dedicated to the memory of Jean Moulin, who was a native of Beziers and a hero of the French resistance movement during the second world war.  The monument was designed by the sculptor Marcel Courbier, who was a friend of Jean Moulin, and who hailed from Nimes.

I’d come to check out the plantings of spring flowers – each year the Beziers municipality plants the most sumptuous displays – and I was not disappointed.  I was too late for the daffodils, but the rest more than made up for it.

P1010882

There are many sinuous paths around the park, snaking across the hillside and there is a lovely walk at the top of the hillside, which allows you some wonderful glimpses of the park and the man-made lake (complete with ducks!).

P1010884

One of the nice things is that it’s not all there for you to see at once, it needs a little bit of exploring!   The most dramatic feature of the park is the Titan fountain, sculpted by yet another Beziers native, Jean-Antoine Injalbert.  This sculpture is altogether 17 metres high, although if you approach it from the top you might not think it that grandiose.

P1010874 P1010875

At the top is Atlas carrying the weight of the world – cast in bronze.  He’s resting on a stone base, representing Pan flanked by rearing horses.  If you look carefully at the first picture you can see the face and the horns.

The real drama of the sculpture is revealed as you take one of the paths down the hill and look at it from below.  There’s as much of it again, a base of rock which has water cascading or trickling over it into a basin at the foot.  When I was there all of it had been drained and was in the process of being cleaned.  I’m looking forward to the summer when the water is on again!

P1010899P1010898

The flower beds around the lower part of the fountain were just spectacular – lots of anemones in a riot of colours!  And here’s a closer look at Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders!

P1010900P1010896

Injalbert also sculpted some smaller pieces, a little less dramatic, but very charming.  Here’s the centrepiece of another fountain in the Plateau des Poetes.

P1010876

And there’s lots more to see.  The wrought iron gates at the lower end of the park, opposite the railway station are spectacular, but I didn’t get that far.  It was time for me to get back to my car and head off.  I hope you enjoyed your walk with me – we can go for another before too long, if you like?

Falling over with colour

Autumn can be the most colourful time of year in Languedoc, and I’ve often wondered why it is that the colours can be so different from one year to the next – haven’t you?

In preparation for this post I decided to do some research, and found the answers.  In simple terms (I’m not very good at complicated), it appears that it works as follows:  in autumn the trees stop photosynthesis and the chlorophyll which gives the leaves their green colour is broken down into other components, to be absorbed and stored by the tree.  In some trees such as aspen and linden naturally yellow pigments are present in the leaves (carotenoids – also found in carrots), and they are usually masked by the chlorophyll.  So when that disappears the naturally yellow colour reappears.

Now for the reds:  red and purple leaves occur on trees where the yellow isn’t present, and the pigments responsible for that colour are called anthocyanins.  They are produced by the tree at the end of the summer, and from what I understand they protect the leaves from the sun while the tree absorbs all it can from the leaves – similar to sunscreen for us.

So that’s the basic science behind the colouring.  The articles I found were all about trees but I imagine that the same goes for the other plants whose leaves turn brilliant shades of red and yellow.  But I was still looking for more:  why can there be brilliant flares of orange and russet all over the countryside one year and the next year it just looks like dull shades of brown and ochre?

Apparently that’s all down to the weather!  The colours develop best if the days are warm and the nights cool and crisp but not freezing.  And then you need enough moisture but not too much, so all in all you can see why the colours can vary so very much from year to year.  Except for the yellow of course, which is always there. But there are other fall colours apart from the leaves 🙂

The olives turn from green to black, going through wonderful shades of purple – very well imitated in some of the olives made from chocolate!  Persimmons turn a beautiful shade of orange and every so often you’ll find a bunch of grapes left behind.  And then there are the strawberry trees, called arbousier in France (arbutus unedo), evergreen trees which grow wild all over the countryside.  They flower in late autumn, at the same time as the fruit from the previous flowering ripens.

If you get a chance to pick enough, the fruits can be turned into arbousier jelly.  Years ago Madeleine, who lived across the road, showed me how to make it.  The fruit is boiled with a little water until all is mush;  left to cool the mush is then strained, and Madeleine insisted that the best way to do this was through one of her sturdy tights (not laddered and washed of course!), and she was of course right!  It’s a little messy, but once the pulp is all in the top is knotted and then you just squeeze the whole thing gently with your hands until the strained pulp ends up in the bowl over which you are working.  Some of it will of course end up covering you!  The pulp is then weighed, the same amount of sugar added, along with a little lemon juice and then boiled to a set.  These days I use 2:1 jam sugar, making a jam/jelly which is less sweet.  Arbousier jelly has a very delicate flavour, reminiscent of apricot.

And there are other berries in all directions – though I’m not sure what those wonderfully red berries are called?

The two most helpful articles about leaf colour were found here and here

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…