Saturday 15th October, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Today the weather was perfect. By 9am we were on our way to Sète on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier. It is one of our favourite days out from Ambre.
Greek in Origin it is today the second largest French port on the Mediterranean. (The first is presumably Marseilles.) Today it struck us as the Venice of France with its canals and marinas where hundreds of yachts where moored up while along the quayside countless restaurants were serving seafood menus – crustacean, squid, cuttlefish, sea bream, sardines à la plancha and crab. It is certainly full of character and crowded with visitors on this sunny Saturday. Sète lies at the far end of a twenty kilometre spit linking it to the town of Agde, also a Greek city constructed on a volcano that erupted out of the sea. Agde is built almost entirely from black volcanic rock.
After coffee on a terrace outside the Mairie in Sète we rediscovered the commercial part of the town which lies a street back from the quayside. The delightful octopus fountain was still waving its tentacles on the square surrounded by plane trees while higher up above the town the road lead to the Maritime cemetery overlooking the sea. It is an oasis of calm with the sea stretching to the horizon, glittering with the myriad shards of reflected sunlight, the tombstones of the departed forming the foreground. We sat admiring the view from the bench beside the grave of the French writer Paul Valery. His writings are rather beyond my comprehension, but that is the result of everyone in France studying philosophy and viewing the world from a different perspective from us simple British. Behind the cemetery is the museum dedicated to his writings. Attempting to understand him we arrived at the museum to be told the entry price was nine euros each! We rapidly decided we didn’t need to understand him and explaining to the lady on reception that our guidebook – which we’d bought at a vide-grenier here – said the entry charge was only ten francs!
Returning down to the port area we searched for somewhere nice for lunch. Despite the plethora of restaurants they all sold similar dishes at similar prices and the traffic was snarled up throughout the streets. To make matters even less agreeable cranes, lorries and diggers where digging up the pavement in several areas along the quayside. Later we discovered the covered market where oysters, moules and seafood platters were being sold to happy families crowded together at wooden tables with glasses of white wine. It was a far cry from most English markets.
We returned to the top of the town along the corniche, beside the Golfe de Lion. Further round the narrow spit stretched out into the sea with the town of Agde on its volcano at the far end.
From Sète we returned towards home turning off to visit Marseillan where we were delighted to discover there was a noisy fête des anguilles in full swing. It turned out to be wonderful. Long tables were set up and eels were served, baked with roast potatoes, or smoked in a barrel, hung from rods.
In the covered market live eels could be bought by the kilo and crabs were also scrambling around as they waited to be sold. At the tables people were crowded together, some with eels, some with plates of oysters with lemon, which the menfolk ate with their pocket knives. Others were eating star shaped fish pies - a speciality of Sète . To accompany all this eating people paid five euros for three tickets entitling them to three samples of wine provided by the local wine producers. I was driving but Ian was delighted with his specially engraved wineglass in a special pocket to hang round his neck. He had a glass of each colour and allowed me a sip from each. He drank them with his Teille de Sète, or fish pie laced with Noilly Prat, which is one of Marseillan’s chief claims to fame. (The other is that at Marseillan the Canal du Midi empties into the Bassin de Thau and thus into the network of canals at Sète and thereby linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. Personally I think it would have been nicer to eat eels than fish pie, though they were very nice. Eels are maybe up to two feet long and almost as thin as pencils. Meanwhile the local band played and sang a lively selection of music and a really grand time was had by everyone including their dogs - also being treated to eels.
Eventually we decided we’d better continue towards home. We still had to get round Beziers, a city with a really horrid hinterland, and we needed to buy fuel on the way. So we reluctantly left Marseillan behind. Shortly after we came across a road diversion which sent us miles out into the garrigue along tiny, unmaintained roads that twisted through the countryside heading towards Pezenas. Modestine’s fuel gauge dropped steadily as Ian map-read us to the Beziers ring road. We drove some forty miles without finding a petrol pump until, just as we were becoming really worried we reached Cazoules-lès-Beziers where Carrefour supermarket finally rewarded Modestine with a full tank of diesel.
Back home this evening Ian sorted out our accounts. The payment transaction for the fuel was awaiting clearance, but so too was another transaction we had not made with Carrefour for just over £133! Thankfully we have internet access and even a phone here in the house so rang our bank to say there was an unauthorised payment on our account. Yawn, yawn. “Don’t worry about it. It will drop off” we were told and they hung up. A search on the internet revealed that it is common practice for supermarkets to automatically charge the maximum amount on a card when used at their pump, then charge again for the actual amount purchased. Normally this is sorted out and passes unnoticed by the customer. In our case we happened to check our account that same evening and it was still there. It seems the second and larger sum is never actually taken so never appears on the full bank statement. For once, we hope we were worrying for nothing. £133 equates to 150 euros, the maximum amount of fuel dispensed at the pump in a single transaction. Did you all know about that? I think it should be made clear to customers that this happens. Perhaps we are the only innocents out there who find it all rather worrying.