Around the Herault

Wednesday 12th October 2016, Ambre les Espagnolettes
Yesterday, Tuesday, we drove to Pezenas. This is a delightful town, large enough to have everything one might need and bursting with charm. It has always been a lovely town but it has had money lavished on it so that it is a shining example of just how charming and attractive an ancient city can look rather than the decayed, broken and dirty buildings where residents still live today in the same dark buildings that were used by their ancestors back in mediaeval times.

Pezenas has its place in history assured as it is where Molière the playwright appointed to the royal court by Louis XIV was sent from Paris with his actors to give special performances. Molière returned frequently to the town for several years and staged new plays and performances in the theatre there.

It was pure delight to wander the streets and admire the façades of the houses, many with ornate balconies, most with tubs of bright flowers. The town is also famed for its petits pâtés de Pezenas, a sort of raised pie filled with minced lamb seasoned with curry and sugar. Robert Clive “of India” stayed in the town when he was sent back from India to convalesce. It is said that his Indian cook gave the recipe to the town and these little sweetmeats have been sold in Pezenas ever since. They are very nice. We bought one each to eat with our coffee. I recall that on our last visit we simply sat on the edge of the fountain to eat them and got into such a sticky mess we used the fountain to wash away the sugar on our hands, It would seem the fountain has been clogged up ever since! Pezenas is twinned with Market Drayton. This is where Clive had his estate in England. Apparently these little pies are also popular in Market Drayton.

Houses on one of the squares, Pezenas


Chilly side road, Pezenas

We were delighted to rediscover the door museum. This fascinated us on our first visit but the next time it had disappeared. It has now reopened elsewhere in the town, but in common with most museums in France, it was not open when we called. It is a collection of ancient doors replaced around the town over the years. Unable to bear parting with them the carpenter kept them stacked in his workshop, along with all the ironware of bolts and brackets, knobs and handles, some dating back to the 16th century. Now they form part of the fascinating history of this delightful town.

Thursday 13th October, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Today we woke to the sound of rain. Torrential rain as can only fall on the cobbled streets of an old village in the Midi. For several months the region has been surviving in drought conditions that have been so bad rivers have disappeared, the ochre-red soil has become a dust bowl and the grapes have withered on the vines so that many vineyards have been left unharvested this year. Some local growers could be bankrupted. Today, now it is too late, the rains arrived in earnest. They started yesterday evening and continued unabated throughout the night. Our street is at the bottom of the village. Water falling higher up finds its way into deep gullies that run down either side of the main street, gathering water from the spurting drainpipes of every building on the way down. By the time it reaches our narrow street the gulleys are overflowing and the entire width of the narrow road has become a fast flowing shallow watercourse. There is a step up in front of every house and today it became obvious why. We all stayed dry but the sound of the spurting drainpipes and gurgling gutters continued all day. Because of the narrow streets the insides of the tall houses are completely dark on such a day and lights are needed even with the shutters open. The houses are designed to keep off the summer heat.

During the afternoon the rain eased for a while and we took the opportunity to wade up the street to the Mairie where Modestine had had a very thorough wash. We drove gingerly along beside the river which had reappeared with a vengeance, and made our way into St. Chinian with a large bag of laundry. Unfortunately the washing machine in this lovely house is in a part of the building to which we do not have access but we discovered an automated washing machine standing outside the entrance to the Intermarché supermarket in St. Chinian.

Public launderette, St. Chinian

By the time we arrived the rain was back and we got soaked loading up the machine which stands in the open air and operates 24/7. It even supplies its own soap powder. We decided this was a classic example of washing our dirty linen in public! While it cleaned our clothes we sat nearby in Modestine hoping the rain would stop before the final spin. We were lucky, it eased sufficiently to bundle everything back into the bag and scuttle back home again. It’s still raining tonight and a wind has got up. Once the shutters are closed we are in a world of our own lit by electric light with no idea of what the weather may be doing outside. Hopefully tomorrow it will have eased, if not there could be floods, the vineyards are swimming in muddy water.

Friday 14th October, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
This morning it was still raining and the main street through the village was cleaner than we have ever known it to be. Water still coursed down the drainpipes and the gullies either side of the road through the village but nowhere had been flooded. Gradually the day brightened and by lunch time the sunshine had reappeared. We read in Midi Libre that over near Sète around the Etang de Thau 200 litres of water fell per square metre of ground. It sounds an incredible figure. Ian says it was the equivalent to one glass of wine for every square inch of ground! We assume that is over the 24 hours of the storm. There were lots of photos in the paper of flooded villages and around here the paths between the rows of vines were rivers of orange mud.

During the afternoon we went out for a drive up into the hills behind St. Chinian. We had heard of an ancient church hidden away in woods deep in the bottom of a ravine and thought it would be a challenge to discover it. First we stopped at the little village of Assignan, a well maintained and picturesque little place that is being carefully restored and brought back to life. An organisation has renovated a couple of restaurants and opened a small hotel serving meals and wine as well as offering accommodation. There are the remains of a castle gatehouse and little alleys leading off from the tiny central square of the village where tables and sunshades make it a delightful focus point for the residents who can meet there for social activities.
Assignan, Herault

Village centre, Assignan

We continued towards St. Jean de Minervois, famed for its sweet white wine known as Muscat. Shortly before reaching the village we turned off to the delightfully named hamlet of Barroubio. The place seemed deserted as we drove down the tiny narrow road into the village, where vines covered the landscape to either side. Up here the landscape was dry and arid. All the rain falling overnight had simply disappeared into the white clinker through which the vines grew. There did not appear to be anything in the way of soil, just an arid landscape of broken stones. It was awesomely beautiful though with the high hills of bare rock stretching away in the distance.

Stony, arid soil, perfect for the vines! Assignan

Leaving Modestine in the village we followed a sign for the church out into the garrigue, skirting a vineyard and leading down into a wood. Water dripped from the trees and the path varied between patches of flooded ground and stretches of stony clinker leading steeply down into a gorge. Soon we heard water roaring between the rocks below and eventually our path became level and ran beside it as it raced along between the trees. Always we were aware of the risk of slipping on the loose stones as we clambered down the rocky path. Suddenly the track stopped on the riverbank. Impossible to continue. Yesterday the river would not have existed but today it was a torrent of water with stepping stones to cross by. We are not that brave or stupid! So we turned and retraced our steps back up the steep and slippery path through the trees. It was easier than going down but left us breathless.

Back in Barroubio it felt very hot after the chill of the woods. We continued towards St. Jean de Minervois and turned off at the next village, Gimeo, to see whether we could reach the church from a different angle. Having parked just outside the village (the streets were too narrow to accommodate cars) we found a sign directing us out of the village towards the Eglise de Trou. It led us out into the garrigue which did not seem right as the church was at the bottom of a ravine. On the point of turning back we saw a couple of mountain bikers approaching along the stony track and asked if they knew where the church was. They turned out to be Dutch with a good command of English but not of French. They pointed us in the right direction and cycled off ahead of us as they were paying a return visit to the church. Shortly afterwards we came to a sheer drop into the void with a view of the church down at the bottom. The cyclists were nowhere to be seen. Deciding there must be a path down somewhere we turned off the path to investigate. Suddenly there were gunshots and a hunter in combat gear appeared. We’d forgotten the French obsession with shooting anything that moved. Rapidly we returned to the path and as we turned to retrace our steps we discovered a couple of bikes lying in the scrubby undergrowth. So we were still on the right track and quickly discovered a definite path leading down into the gorge. The air was wet and cold and the footpath green with moss even after all the weeks and weeks of drought. At the bottom a wooden bridge forded the rushing white torrent and we scrambled up the other side to reach the promontory upon which stood the ancient, dilapidated Romanesque church. Inside it was full of bird droppings and the wooden timbers were dripping water after the rains. The Dutch cyclists were inside and agreed with us that we would not have found it without their directions. They only knew about it because a neighbour of theirs had told them her mother’s grave was in the tiny surrounding graveyard, hemmed in by the kermis oaks and pines of the surrounding woods. Each grave had a rusty metal cross and some also had metal palings around them. All looked sadly neglected and most were obviously abandoned. Through the trees we could see the tall wall of grey rock rising up to the top of the gorge from where we had clambered down from the arid Causse.

Ancient church hidden deep in a ravine
Ancient church (Eglise de Trou) in the woods, near St. Jean de Minervois

We decided that we may as well continue to St. Jean de Minervois as we had almost reached it. We had spent a fascinating afternoon and time was getting on so we needed to return fairly soon. When we arrived we found a modern, very ugly chai on the edge of the village and nothing of real interest to detain us. We returned to St. Chinian in a remarkably short time despite it having taken all afternoon to reach our intended target. We think we are fairly fit for our age but we are soft compared with our hosts who have loaned us the use of their house. They do not drive and make their way here from Beziers airport by bus and taxi. Once here they use their bikes to travel around the surrounding countryside. It is they who suggested we try to find the church. Can they really have cycled all that way and still had energy to scramble through the garrigue and down into the ravine as well as cycling all the way home again afterwards?