Sunday, April 11, 2021

Our Ride to Roussillon

The iconic  Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in full summer glory.
.... photo from www.senanque.fr



Le printemps est inexorable.

I’ve been seeing banners around town with this quote from Pablo Neruda. The spring is inexorable, unstoppable. And it’s true. Spring is coming, relentlessly. Every day we see more leaves, more greenery on the trees and bushes around here. It makes me realize what is meant when I hear California has no seasons. There are trees back home that lose their leaves on the winter, but not so many, it seems! 

From my window here in Montpellier I can see evergreens–pines, mostly–and many bare branches. But the un-leaved are becoming rare; most of the recently-bare branches are now sporting thin leaves of a light green. The trees behind our balcony, providing a wall of green during the summer, are still in process: the streets and red tile roofs of the adjacent neighborhood are clearly visible. But any day now those leaves will unfurl, and the sight of the neighbors will become a memory. The birds are already busy choosing their locations among the still-bare branches; they know what’s coming!

 

The still-bare branches and our neighbors beyond our balcony.


 Back before we started all this travel stuff, when we were working and were mere travel wannabes, we rented the spare room in our house in California on Airbnb. We met a lot of wonderful people, and heard great travel stories. And we would regularly help foreign visitors sort out their travel plans. Often we were horrified by the overly-ambitious plans of our guests. They wanted to go to Yosemite National Park, see the Grand Canyon, visit Death Valley—and the Mojave—check out the redwoods, then end with a few days in San Francisco. And maybe, visit a few wineries. 

Well, we’d tell them, you’ll be spending all your time driving. That’s a lot further than you think! 

We recently had similar experience ourselves. 

I had just received my newly-earned French driving license when Wednesday evening French President Emmanuel Macron laid out the plan for yet another lock-down, to begin Saturday, the day before Easter. So Friday we took off in a rental car on a day trip, with our friend, fellow expat, and charming travel companion Kate. We planned a tight loop that would take in about seven promising locations and, according to my generous time table, get us back home by 4:30. Hah! 

We made it to four of the seven and got back home by 6:30, beating the curfew by a bare half hour! Saw some great stuff, though.

 

Tip of the island where the Sorgue splits.

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Nominally an hour away from Montpellier, it took us almost two to get to this small town, thanks to the many slow traffic lights around Avignon. But when we arrived, we were utterly charmed! It was surprisingly crowded (we’ve grown used to finding towns empty), perhaps because others, like us, were out for a final excursion before the confinement. 

Paula and Kate contemplate a main shopping street...

... and this cute cafe (closed, 0f course!)

As the name suggests, the town started out on an island on the Sorgue River. While the town has far outgrown the tiny island, the watercourse provides an undeniable charm.

 


This pair of ducks took time out from their river swim to join us for lunch... or at least hang out, hoping for a hand out!

We bought sandwiches from a take-out vendor; there were convenient-looking tables just outside. I asked if we could sit there. He cited the law closing cafés all over France: "135 Euro fine!". OK, maybe not such a good idea after all. So I showed him this photo. He agreed, yup, that's the way it is...

Sign in front of a café in pandemic France: "Coffee to go -1.50€...Coffee here - 135€"    


 Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque

Anybody who has spent even a few minutes researching the lavender fields of southern France has run into the photo at the head of this blog. This iconic monastery, the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, is—quite literally—the poster child for lavender fields.

Our first view of the abbey from a road overlook.
 Of course, when we were there it didn’t look like that! The lavender peaks in the summer, and was just getting started this early in the year. Plus, the abbey, undergoing a major restoration, was covered in scaffolding. (Not the first time we’ve run into this; when we were in London a couple of years ago Big Ben, the iconic clock tower of the Parliament buildings, was all but invisible behind scaffolding; and probably still is!). 

What the abbey looked like the day we visited (compare to the photo at the top!)

But the abbey, set in its narrow, wooded valley in an isolated rural setting, is a fabulous place to visit. The setting was chosen by the Cistercians in the 13th Century; their charter required their monasteries to be located away from towns and villages, and to be self-sufficient. The river Sénancole (the abbey’s name derives from the Latin sana aqua, pure water, a reference to the river) was somewhat stronger back then, and provided irrigation and fertile soil. 

The abbey prospered for a century or so; then the discord and violence of the 15th century drove it into decline. During the Revolution of the 1790s it was sold for income (as were many other religious properties). Sold again in the mid-1800s, it once more became the seat of a religious order. After some ups and downs, the abbey returned to the Cistercians in 1988. Since then the monks have made a living cultivating lavender, as well as olives and honey, and by offering hospitality to visitors. With this income they are slowly restoring the monument. (Info from the abbey website, https://www.senanque.fr.).

 

View of the abbey from the back with hikers passing by.

We wandered around, contemplating the buildings from several directions and enjoying the outdoors. There appears to be extensive hiking trails behind the abbey, through the narrow valley of the Séancole. I saw a group of hikers emerge and would have liked to spend some time exploring, but we had a different trip in mind. 

 

Paula's excellent photo of the town of Gordes spilling down the hill.

Gordes

This village is the closest habitation to the Abbey of Sénanque. It’s dramatically located, spilling down the side of the hill. Sadly, we missed the viewpoint heading into the town, but Paula was quick enough to catch a snapshot.

 

The main square of Gordes; looks like we're back to deserted towns!


Folks just hangin' around on a slow afternoon.

Gordes has livened up the cold stone walls with large surreal B&W images.

The town itself was mostly deserted. We’d come to expect this by now, with government action against the pandemic keeping most shops (and all cafes and restaurants) closed. Still, after our visit to the very lively Isle-sur-la-Sorgue we were prepared to see more activity. It did occur to me though that this was the afternoon of Good Friday, and while France is expressly a secular country, it does have strong Catholic roots. And in predominantly Christian societies Good Friday afternoon (traditionally considered the time when Jesus was crucified and died) people tend to stay in.

Plus, all the cafés and restaurants were closed!        

Kate heads down to the overlook.

We interrupt our sightseeing at the overlook to smile for Kate's camera.

We wandered the quiet streets a bit, found a coffee take-away place, and admired the view of the surrounding countryside before heading to our next, and last, stop.


 

Buildings in the town of Roussillon, with their distinctive red-yellow tones.

Roussillon

Paula and I visited this town a couple of decades ago, and I still recall the Sentier de Ocres, the Ochre Trail, winding past cliffs of yellow-brown earth.  Once upon a time, a century or more ago, this powerfully-colored earth was a valuable resource. The pigments mined from the earth here were in high demand for use in dying textiles and coloring paints. But production waned, and by the 1950s chemical dyes had replaced the natural ones.  

A mostly-deserted square in Roussillon.

Classic shot of the Roussillon clock tower.

Wildflowers along a wall (thanks for the photo, Kate!)

What’s left, though, is a beautiful, colorful village, accepted as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France®, an official designation recognizing it as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. (Gordes, which we’d just left, has the same designation.)


Roussillon side street.

A close look at this doorway shows the date 1698 inscribed in the lintel.


Again, the village was deserted when we arrived, so we had the place to ourselves as we wandered among the homes and buildings displaying the astonishing variations of the yellow-orange-red ocher found in the area. 

One thing we did not do was walk the Sentier de Ocres, that path through the former ocher mines just outside the village. Time, like the spring, was moving inexorably, and we had to be getting back on the road. It was a long drive back, and we had to think of the stamina of the driver (me!).

 

What looks to be an old lavender still (to extract the essential oils), now an objet d'art.

Gotta love those warm red tones!

View of the ocher buildings or Roussillon; the top peaks of the Sentier de Ocres is just visible on the far left center.

We definitely must return to Roussillon. On this, my second visit, I remembered absolutely nothing from our first visit, except for wandering the paths through the amazing ocher hills (the part we missed this time!) . I really want to walk those colorful canyons again!

Paula and Kate work their careful way back down to the parking lot. We will definitely be back!

 10 March 2021


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Salt Cod and French Cuisine

The Promenade du Peyrou, a popular park in Montpellier. Note the seemingly-obligatory stature of Louis IV, and, behind it, the water palace, terminus of the Aqueduc Saint-Clément.

Things have been a bit slow here on the travel front. Our friends Mark and Mary have returned to their compact nest in Paris, after passing the lock-down and it’s extended aftermath here in Montpellier. And, more to the point, they took their drivers’ licenses with them! Oh, we could take a train somewhere—and eventually will, even for a day trip—but it’s just less fun without them. And anyway, still no cafés and restaurants! 

So for the moment we’ll turn our attention elsewhere. I'll take a step off the deep end here and talk about cooking (not a subject for which I am well known…) 


We saw this dried and salted cod at a market in Castelnau, a suburban part of Montpellier. It looks a bit… odd, because we’re not used to seeing it. But it has sustained life in Europe, and other parts of the world, for centuries. 

Salt cod at the market in Castelnau.

Salt cod. Traditionally plentiful in the North Atlantic, cod is an oily fish, making it easier to preserve than most fish (or so I’m told). We first ran into dried cod when we were in Bergen, Norway (that post is here), a few years back. It was a major export for centuries. Thanks to the Hanseatic League, a trading and defensive organization operating in Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages, cod from Norway was traded throughout northern and western Europe, providing much-needed protein to people far from the ocean. A few weeks later we learned more about the League and its extensive trading activates when we were in Hamburg, one of the League’s major base cities. This trade made the city, and its merchants, very rich. This wealth is still visible today in both the preserved warehouses/homes of these early traders, and the modern city itself.

 

Modern-day Bergen, Norway; the original Hanseatic League buildings are in the center, behind the sailboats.

Warehouses in Hamburg, Germany originally built to hold trade goods. 

 Seeing cod in that market in the South of France reminded me of Bergen, and Hamburg, and brought back to me the history—the very long history—of France, and Europe, and how these countries had been interrelated for many centuries. Which reminded me, again, of the main reasons we are here in Europe in the first place, to experience and learn about that history, and the connections that emerged. And broke. And reformed. Repeat for a thousand years… 

Shortly after buying our cod and leaving the market in Castelnau we found this little gem, a complete surprise in what we thought was a relatively new suburb of Montpellier.


Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Castelnau-le-Lez, in what is now a suburb of Montpellier. 


This church was built at the end of the 12th Century. It turns out Castelnau has been a suburb of Montpellier for over 800 years! And, before that, it was a Roman outpost along the via Domitia (a Roman road built around 120 BCE that runs through the south of France... er, Gaul… from Spain to the Italian Alps). 

At any rate, the church at Castelnau put me in mind of these other churches we’d seen in the region. One we’d found a bit south of Montpellier in another “modern” suburb, Lattes. And one we’d found returning from some other adventure somewhere. There is a certain "family resemblance” among them; they were all built around the same time (13 Century).

 

Clockwise from top left: Église Saint-Laurent de Lattes; Chapelle St Laurent; Église Saint-Martin; Abbaye de Gellone, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. All within an hour's drive!


And so, with all these historical associations in mind, I bought some. Of the salt cod, I mean. (Remember the salt cod that started all this?) Because, actually, we intended to eat it.

 

         French Cuisine

While France has a reputation for very high-end cuisine, the food that people eat in their daily lives, la vie quotidian, is mostly based on what people in the region have been eating for hundreds of years. (In addition to, of course, the big three: hamburgers—incredibly popular around the world—and pizza—also incredibly popular, and kebab, popular not so much in the US but certainly everywhere else.) 


Salt cod is one of the fundamental ingredients still widely used in many dishes, even though modern refrigeration has eliminated the need for the traditional salting. We ran into it in Spain, under the name bacalao; it’s used in many of the tapas we enjoyed. And here in France, or at least in this part of France, it’s often known as morue. 

One dish in particular using morue that has captured our imagination (and our taste buds!) is brandade de morue, or just brandade. The de-salted salt cod is blended with olive oil and garlic (of course it is! This is the South of France!) and cream. It can be spread on bread, or, the way we wanted to make it, mixed with mashed potatoes (brandade de morue parmentière). We’d had it at restaurants several times (restaurants! Oh, remember restaurants? Sitting at a table with many other people around and having food brought to you? We haven’t been in one of those for a long time!). 

Morue from the North Atlantic
--- photo from https://environnement.savoir.fr/morue-cabillaud/


Finding this salt cod at the market spurred us to make our own version. I started with a video on making Brandade de morue nîmoise, Brandade from the city of Nîmes, which is considered to be the origin of the dish (so, presumably, authentic!). We soaked the cod for three days, changing the water morning and evening. I spend some time picking out tiny bones and peeling off the skin (the piece we got was not particularly good; the result of arriving just as the market was closing up for the day, and, possibly, being a foreigner!) 

Next we boiled, then mashed, the potatoes with plenty of olive oil. The now mostly un-salty cod was poached in milk, broken into bits and added to the potatoes. Mixing in the cooking milk pretty much finished the dish, except for the final baking in the oven.

 

Our authentic brandade de morue parmentière.

Next time we’ll try it with fresh fish, cod or some other white fish. Meanwhile we’re discovering ever more variants. At another market in Montpellier we bought a brandade intended to be spread on bread (no potatoes in this one, just olive oil and garlic and cream). We ended up mixing it with our own mashed potatoes. Quite good!


The market at Les Arceaux, the Arches, named for the aqueduct running above (the one that terminates at the Promenade du Peyrou shown in the photo at the start of  the blog.


Another street in the Les Arceaux neighborhood of Montpellier.

More salt cod, this from the Arceaux market. The random bits in the middle sell for about $10US/pound; the "cheeks" (a delicacy) on the left for almost twice that. Price of the fillets on the right is unknown...



What else? We’re busy making plans for future trips, a visit to California this summer, maybe a couple of weeks in Paris. Also, there’s still plenty of places to explore closer to Montpellier--but for the moment the cafés and restaurants are still closed. Plus, there is a strict 6PM curfew (now 7PM! Woo woo!), which kinda kills any desire to spend an overnight in a different city—to spend the evening on a different couch, in a different living room? The pandemic landscape is shifting, but nothing is as we expected it to be… still!



Street art, pasted on a wall in Montpellier. 

The text at the bottom of this public street art reads "Moi j'ai besoin d'espoir sinon je ne suis rien;" (Me, I am in need of hope; otherwise I am nothing) Fun fact:  dropping the apostrophe changes espoir to despoir, exchanging hope for despair.


Breaking news: I've passed my French driving license exam, and am now licensed to drive on two continents! (Well, as a "novice" driver I'm limited to 70MPH on the turnpikes for my first couple of years.) And, we have appointments for the vaccine. Get that car ready, we have a lot of lost time to make up for!!

 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Walk in the Woods


 

A short tram ride from Montpellier is the bedroom community of Lattes. Apart from winding suburban streets lined with suburban homes there’s not much of interest. Well, there is the small Roman archeological museum, which we will definitely visit once things open up again. But what draws our attention today is the large nature preserve. We’ve visited it before, but winter is coming—to an end, and I am interested in following the change of seasons by regular visits to this area, called le Site Naturel du Méjéan—the nature site of Méjéan.

It was a cool misty morning...

...and things were still wet and muddy from recent rains.


This is no car trip; 20 minutes on the tram takes us to Lattes, and another 10 minutes walking the winding suburban streets leads us to the wooded path. From there it’s straight along a  winding path to a shallow coastal lake called un étang. Along the way we pass marshy wet lands, horse pastures (sometimes complete with horses!), wooden bird blinds, and, these days, nesting storks.

I like the intense green and browns.

This has always been a marshy area, crossed by drainage ditches and small ponds.

The morning was misty and the ground muddy; it had rained a few days earlier. The mist lent a mysterious aspect to the long green corridors, but burned off by the time we reached the edge of the étang. Rising up across the water was the town of Palavas-les-Flots, two or three kilometers distant.


Looks like everybody is paring up!


These aerial condos are filling up, too!

We’re indifferent birders, but we were pleased that our friends were not. It’s always great when someone identifies different species, with comments on their habits and behaviors! This is the nesting season, and all the stork platforms had tenants; perhaps on a subsequent visit we’ll see some baby birds. 

This is decidedly a watery area! Ponds, streams, pools...

This sculpture represents a vouivre, a mythical yet terrifying creature that has always haunted the imaginations of the people living in these marshy areas; it was said to sallow up intruders it found on the lonely paths through the swamp.

On our way back through the suburbs of Lattes we had another discovery: this 13th century church!
Yet another reminder that people have been living here for a very long time.


This was our second visit to Méjéan, and certainly not our last! Now that spring has sprung, I expect to see weekly changes to the trees, the brush, the birds. I don’t imagine we’ll get there that often, but I am looking forward to going again! 


 

 

Well, our friends Mark and Mary have moved on; back to Paris, to be precise. They were living there for a couple of years before their visit to Montpellier coincided with the pandemic lockdown, and were just as happy to be out of the city. We will certainly miss them, but it is yet another inducement for us to visit Paris!

 

Meanwhile, I am still working on my driver’s license, having missed the first exam. I expect it will be finalized this month, and we’ll be ready to get back on the road. But of course, all plans these days must include an escape clause!




27 Feb 2021

 Montpellier