Sunday 9th October 2016
We have been back in the village of Ambre-les-Espagnolettes for five days now. I had to give-up on attempts to keep the blog up to date as we travelled. It was all just too exhausting. Ian would spend each evening sitting with his computer in the front seat of Modestine working on his printing history papers for the French book trade. I was never aware of him coming to sleep around midnight each evening.
As most of the places we have been visiting were places I have already written about it does not matter that I have missed writing about them during this trip. However, now that we are settled in one place for a while and I have less driving to do I feel able to at least compile some brief notes as a record of our travels.
Today the sun was pleasantly warm with a freshness that made it delightful. We drove into St. Chinian for the market. Although we didn’t really need anything it was good to recapture something of the lively atmosphere of this little town once more. We bought paella made in a huge pan in a corner of the market. We are near the border with Spain here and the heavily accented French here has the sounds of Catalan. Many of the residents in the area are of Spanish origin, their parents and grandparents having fled here during the Spanish civil war.
Having made a nostalgic stroll around the town we returned home for Sunday lunch on the terrace, after which we felt so full and sleepy we spent the afternoon reading until it was cool enough to take a walk through the vineyards and olive groves surrounding the village. We stopped to chat with a frail and elderly lady who told us she has a house for sale in Berlou, about seven kilometres higher up in the hills. She cannot sell it because it is so isolated, nor can she continue living there alone for the same reason. Houses here are so dilapidated and ancient that they are barely habitable at all and she has been some years trying to find a buyer already.
This evening we ate supper by lamplight on the terrace until the chill of the evening drove us downstairs to the kitchen. There is a marked contrast between the temperature of morning/evening and the core of the day. At lunchtime there was a gecko running up the wall. Exciting as this seems the lizards, which used to be plentiful, have completely disappeared. We’ve not seen one since we arrived.
Wednesday 12th October 2016 , Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
On Monday we woke early and by 9am we were waiting in St. Chinian for the bus into Beziers, When it arrived its destination display told us it was going to La Salvetat up in the mountains in a completely different direction from the route we wanted. The bus number was right though so we climbed aboard and asked the driver if he was actually going to Beziers. Glancing up at the display he grinned and changed it to somewhere else we didn’t want to go but assured us he was actually going to Beziers. Coming back in the evening the display was completely wrong again but recognising some of the morning passengers in the queue we guessed it was just a quaint custom of the Midi. The day was hot and we started off with a stroll down the Allée Paul Riquet. It looked smart and clean! That is something I never expected to say about Beziers which we have always considered to be dirty, rubbish strewn, dilapidated and full of dog mess. This is now greatly improved and the broken pavements have been relaid and made safe. We found the PMU we used to use and stopped for a coffee before taking a delightful stroll through the Plateau des Poètes, a public garden leading down to the railway station the main avenue flanked by statues of French poets and writers. On a sunny day the gardens are charming and there were views of the hills way beyond the city.
Beziers is built on a hilltop so all roads lead steeply down on all sides. From the top, standing in front of the cathedral there were views out over the surrounding countryside and down on to the old bridge across the River Orb. From this same vantage point we could see the Pont Canal carrying the Canal du Midi across the river. Nearby are the multiple locks of Foncerans, a series of five locks to raise ships up the canal on a staircase of water. All this was undertaken by the engineer Paul Riquet in the 18th century.
Beziers is famed for its rugby, about which we know nothing. It also has an active bull ring which we discovered. Here the bulls are not actually killed by matadors. During the summer season black bulls, especially bred in the Camargue, are brought into the city and the bull ring is used as a tourist attraction. We understand that the horns of the bulls are protected so neither the bulls nor the matadors are in real danger.
We passed an enjoyable but hot and exhausting day around the city, even making our way out to the old cemetery where the long departed good and great of the city now reside in ornate tombs complete with their own roofs and front doors. These tiny residences line either side of small winding roads that cross and re-cross the cemetery so that we were quickly lost. We wandered the little “streets” of this town of the dead until we eventually chanced on the entrance and made good our escape in time for the bus back to St. Chinian.
Bus rides are especially interesting for me as I can admire the countryside as we turn down the side roads to drop school children off in the small villages. Usually my concentration is riveted to the road with its many bends, accents and descents. Looking towards the mountains of the Haut Languedoc we noticed a cloud of black smoke from the direction of Bédarieux. There was obviously a forest fire somewhere. Today, reading the local newspaper Midi-Libre it was reported that the fire had called for a hundred firefighters including air crews. The location of the fire was in a forest on inaccessible terrain up in the hills and the landscape was tinder dry because of the long drought here. Once it caught hold it took many hours to bring it under control.