Wednesday 20th March 2013, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Since our arrival back in the Languedoc we have settled in, enjoying the familiarity of the big stone house with its five bedrooms. As before, our favourite places are the kitchen with its huge fireplace and the sunny roof terrace overhung by an ancient vine and offering views towards the rising hillsides of the Haut Languedoc. Our first few days have been very chilly with showers, but now it is beginning to warm up enough for us to enjoy lunch on the terrace and even an evening glass of wine – so long as we keep our coats on and pretend to be well hard.
On Sunday we went to the St Chinian market and stocked up on vegetables and cheese. Our coffee in the Café des Balcons lacked some of the charm of earlier vsits. It has been redecorated, modernised and appears to be under new ownership. For old time’s sake we drank coffee and ate croissants from the market there as we watched the regulars. They stay inside. The visitors and local Dutch residents tend to sit across the road at tables in the market while the staff from the bar carry their coffees across for them, keeping a wary eye open for the heavy lorries coming down the hill into the town centre. Lovely in warmer weather but we preferred the bar where kids rode their scooters around and played with their dad’s mobile phones.
For the rest, we have been exploring old haunts – Agde, Pezenas, Béziers, the Canal-du-Midi, Narbonne and the coast, Ensérune and Berlou. We have also taken walks through the hills around St. Chinian.
Today we went to the market in St. Pons, returning home via Olargues and Vieussan. Both of these are lovely rose coloured mediaeval villages clinging to the steep hillsides of the Haut Languedoc. Both lie in the valley of the Orb. We found Vieussan particularly attractive.
The other day, in need of a coffee and to avoid the rain, we called off at the Blue Lizard cafe, isolated on the winding road along the valley just above the stunningly lovely river Orb. The predominantly young customers in the bar were very friendly and intrigued with Modestine. Today we stopped off nearby to climb up into the village of Vieussan and were waved to cheerfully by a couple of workmen repairing one of the houses. They recognised us from the cafe. It seems that this pretty mediaeval village had long since been abandoned and a group of young people decided some years ago to restore it and bring it back to life. We were very impressed with what they are achieving. The stony streets are no more than narrow alley ways linking the heavy, rough hewn stone houses with their iron grilled windows and heavy ancient doors together as they stagger steeply up the hillside with tunnels, alleys, steps and stairs everywhere. Gradually the village is being reclaimed while above it all stands the tower of the ancient citadel. If you climb all the way to the top there are public gardens that are being created by the occupants. There is a rose garden and the ridge is covered by Mediterranean plants – herbs, agaves and cactuses. There are near vertical views down onto the green waters of the Orb winding around the rocky hillside while the mountainous mass of the grey Caroux looms near across the valley. Le Caroux is the maiden of the mountains. From a distance she resembles a woman lying on her back. Legend has it that she was Cebenna, the daughter of a Titan, condemned by the Gods of Olympus to be devoured by the mountain. And thus she lies forever, surrounded by hills and dominating the skyline for miles around.
We followed the ridge above the village along to the cemetery with its Cyprus trees and grey stone walls. The graves are mainly 19th and early 20th century many with photos of the departed dressed in garments of a bygone age.
We returned home along the valley, passing through Roquebrun where we have camped in the past. We had spent a tiring day around St. Pons – it being market day there – so did not stop at Roquenbrun but returned home where we enjoyed the evening sunshine on the terrace with a glass of wine.
We have of course also paid a visit to our neighbour, Mme J. who has her wine cellar in the heart of the village. Her family vineyards lie just behind the terrace of this house. To tide us over we bought a few bottles of her red wine. Our daughter Kate is flying out to spend a few days with us next week and we are looking forward to taking her there to select our wine. Ever generous Mme J offered us a bottle of their latest newly acclaimed dry white wine as a gift telling us there was to be no argument - “c’est moi le chef”! Tonight we tasted it with the fresh fish we purchased for supper. It is quite delicious. Normally we do not drink white wine but we will definitely be buying some on our next visit.
Yesterday I felt weary with driving so we spent the day around the village of Ambre. In the afternoon, it being a day when the hunters were not out with their guns, we set off for a walk in the woods above the village. In the centre of the village square the “Boss” was dozing with one eye open to ensure he missed nothing of the activities around the village. He’d already turned up at the door to check us out but either our novelty has waned or he has aged over the past few years. He wags his tail as we pass but can no longer be bothered to follow us around the village, sleep on our doorstep or accompany us on our walks, sniffing at every bush, tree and shrub along the way. He eyed us carefully as we patted him on our way past and almost decided to take us or we’d surely get lost. It was all too much bother though and he went back to his doggy dreams.
As we left the top end of the village there was a scampering and an agile young dog skidded to a halt beside us reporting for duty. The Boss had obviously decided we were not safe out on our own after all and had called upon younger paws than his to keep us company. True to his command the little lady never left us. She had little interest however in sniffing and watering the vines. She was just a bundle of energy, leaping and bouncing with delight throughout the walk spending more time airborne than with all her feet on the ground. At one point she tore off into the woods and returned followed by a huge hound with a bell clanking around his neck to keep him safe from any possible hunters. Her duty lay with us however and she always returned within a few minutes. It was not until we were safely back in the village and met her owners frantically searching for her that she deigned to leave us. They complained she’d been missing all day and they were afraid she’d been mistaken for a wild creature and shot.
The Boss was still guarding the village with one eye open as he continued to occupy the centre of the square while the few vehicles passing through the village drove around him. We assured him we’d been well looked after and he almost seemed to smile as he rolled over in the dried mud and went back for another doggy dream of chasing a wild hare through the vineyard.
Monday 1st April 2013, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Today is Easter Monday and it has been pouring with rain non-stop since before we woke this morning. We’ve had visitors over the past few days and this morning we were without bread. There is no point in buying French baguettes for the following day as they become hard and dry so before we could have breakfast we had to brave the rain to drive into St. Chinian where the supermarket was open until midday. We were soaked by the time we’d run back to Modestine and she turned pink on the way home from driving through watery potholes filled with tractor mud. We’ve left her up one of the tiny side roads of the village hoping the torrential rain will clean her up a bit. We’ve spent the rest of the day with our computers in the kitchen while the rain gurgles down the drainpipes into the open drains. The further down the village the houses are the more water swirls past the heavy ancient front doors. Down where we live it is like having a stream pouring past the window. From time to time the “Boss” patrols our tiny lane, climbs onto the window-ledge and looks in at us hopefully. Does he really imagine we’d have the scruffy, smelly creature in here with us or is he just checking we are okay?
Time for a brief summary of what we have been doing since we arrived here. My eye is still being difficult, indeed the sunshine seems to make it worse, and I have been avoiding the computer except for emergency e-mails. We need electric light all the time we are in our dark kitchen and the glowing circles of light in the gloom make my vision go milky when I get tired. Thus we spend most of our time out of doors and I’ve even taken to cooking French meals as it is one of the few things I can do indoors that doesn’t bother my eye! Duck and rabbit are just two French dishes I’ve been successfully experimenting with.
Local walks have included several around the garrigue including Berlou, St. Chinian and Fontcaude Abbey. On Palm Sunday we enjoyed a sunny coffee on the market square and pottered around the town where we watched the locals coming out from the church clutching fronds of bay and palm leaves gathered from the surrounding hillsides.
The weather had turned much warmer and during the afternoon we took a very atmospheric walk up the Gorge d’Héric, surely one of the most beautiful places in the area. The path winds up for five kilometres through the steep sided narrow gorge through which the young Héric river cascades and tumbles, twisting and writhing around the craggy limestone rocks that are home to moufflons and wild sangliers. Because of the recent rains, waterfalls were cascading down over the rocks, turning the river to a white torrent as it thundered into turbulent green pools. The mist hung low within and above the gorge leaving the rocks eerily visible around us. Often the path was itself a ribbon of shallow, fast flowing water through which we scrambled in the rain. Eventually we reached the top of the gorge from where tracks lead yet higher into the hills. Isolated up here was the tiny hamlet of Héric, now no more than a couple of houses fused into the rocks of the hillside. We’d seen nobody on our way up the gorge and we were completely absorbed in the magic of our surroundings. As we stopped to rest before returning the way we had come, a lady in wellies came out of the main property to offer coffee and soft drinks! She has developed a little business serving exhausted climbers refreshments when they get to the very top. So we sat dripping under our umbrellas sipping excellent hot coffee as large birds of prey soared over the crags above us. Our chat with the lady revealed that her family had lived in the same hamlet for over 400 years. She had been born there and was completely at ease in such an isolated location. In winter her family was frequently cut off from the world but to them it was completely normal. In the summer she saw hundreds of people eager to make the climb through such a spectacular landscape. She told us of having been attacked by a wounded sanglier. She opened her door unaware it was sheltering right nearby. It attacked her, slitting her leg open from ankle to knee and biting her backside. Had she fallen it would have killed her but somehow she got back into the house and phoned for help. She had to be airlifted out. Her husband and son eventually located and shot the boar otherwise she would never have ventured out from her house again! She expressed an immense satisfaction in later eating her attacker and she seems to have made a full recovery.
As we chatted a family of four athletic Russians bounced their way up the final rocky steps to the terrace and joined us for coffee. It was slightly surreal, sitting in the mizzling rain at the head of a gorge speaking a mixture of French, Russian and English! The Russians came from St. Petersburg but owned a house in St. Pons. They were in France for a training course for their younger daughter who at 16 is an up and coming tennis star expected, according to the family, to be the next Serena Williams. This is not just idle talk. The mother was a former Russian athlete who took part in the Olympics in Atlanta. She was a runner and a jumper and had the build to match. They all spoke some English, as the daughters had attended courses and private school in Arundel in Sussex. Funny the encounters one makes by complete chance.
Coming back down was a doddle. We just let our feet plod steadily on, stopping them from time to time to admire the scenery. We drove home weary but very contented with our day and dried out our shoes and jackets in the kitchen.
Next morning the sun was shining as we set off to the airport near Béziers. We were on our way to collect our daughter Kate and her partner Matt who had decided to take advantage of us being in one place for a while to fly out to stay for a few days.
Their flight arrived slightly early and shortly after 10am they and their luggage were bouncing around in the back of Modestine as we drove down to Sète for a fish lunch beside the Canal du Midi near where it enters the lagoon of the Etang de Thau. The canal, cut for several hundred miles across France in the 17th century, links the Atlantic near Bordeaux to the Mediterranean near Sète, thus avoiding the need for all ships, at that time, to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar.
Kate and Matt had driven up to Bristol through the snow at 4am. Just a few hours later they were sitting in the sunshine sipping white wine and eating mussels and a platter of locally caught fried fish that included octopus and cuttlefish. What better time to take a spring holiday?
We have been so very lucky all week. The only wet day we had was on Thursday when we had all been invited for lunch with our friends Christine and Mostyn at Boubals, on the other side of the massif of the Espinousse. Who cared if it was raining when we were enjoying one of Christine’s superb lunches? And the ride across the mountains there and back had their own charm in the rain. The river Orb was in spate as we crossed the narrow bridges just wide enough for Modestine to pass.
We have also made a trip out to the picturesque, historical little Cathar town of Minerve, perched on a rocky outcrop above the gorge of the river Brian that flows literally beneath the town. The river had far too much water in it this time to allow us to pass through the natural tunnel as we did on our last visit. As we explored the village Kate was delighted to discover a family of dogs of the same breed as Ambre’s “Boss” enjoying a sundrenched ledge together.
We also visited Aigne, an inhabited mediaeval village built in a spiral with the church at the centre. Dating from the tenth century and known as a circulade, it is an excellent example of a building style typical of the region where defence was of paramount importance.
Other visits we made with Kate and Matt include Roquebrun, Ensérune, a return visit to the Gorges d’Heric, selecting cheeses at the market in St. Pons, lunch in Olargues and a return visit to the steep slopes of the mediaeval village of Vieussan where Kate searched eagerly for her next dream home to restore. On a sunny afternoon the village looked like her dream come true but hopefully she realises it is completely isolated and the damp, dark stone rooms opening on to steep cobbled alleyways threading up the hillside are a lot less enjoyable in winter than they are when the sun is shining. Fortunately she has no money now anyway. On the crest of the village, near the ruined citadel, she found a seat overlooking the gorge down on to the Orb. Along the ridge, covered by wild thyme, rosemary and bay, stands the village church surrounded by its little graveyard, shaded by tall, narrow cypress firs that give the area an Italianate appearance. We drove back along the steep winding narrow route that takes us high into the hills, through vineyards and forests to drop down into the little village of Berlou with its large steel tanks of quality Berlou wine standing shoulder to shoulder at the local wine cooperative. From there we were soon back in our village where we tried out the supper Remoska had cooked for us – rabbit in mustard with prunes. To be recommended.
Too soon their visit was ended and on Sunday we drove them back to the airport, about an hour’s drive from here. The weather pulled out all the stops for them. It was bright and hot while they were heading back to the chill of an English spring. They took with them some bottled sunshine however in the form of a bag in box from one of Ambre’s own vineyards. We have since heard that they are safely home after a splendid few days. They are already counting the years until retirement!
Alone once more we quickly overcame the momentary sense of loss and headed off to the nearest beach. Valras-Plage is only a few minutes from the airport. It is the point where the river Orb, which snakes around the hills here, passing through so many of the ancient villages, finally exits into the Mediterranean. The sea was deep blue, the sand golden. The boats bobbing in the marina were white and gleaming. Everybody, but everybody, was there! They crowded the promenade and the little street of cafes, bars and restaurants leading down to the beach. Ponies gave rides to kiddies along the sea front while pandas, bears and birds posed for photos with the natives or simply relaxed with a beer on a seafront terrace.
Really, it has to be said, the beaches along the coast here cannot hold a candle to the inland mountain scenery and picturesque villages. They are set up purely to provide a sandy beach for tourists with somewhere to eat and drink. There is nothing of interest to explore or enjoy and we were soon more than happy to leave Valras-Plage behind and return home for a local walk near the village and an evening beer on our terrace.
See earlier references in our blogs to local places in our overall index for France at
Then select option for Languedoc.