Monday, June 7, 2010

Four Hours

NOTE: If you read this on Monday, Blogger pooped out on uploading photos half-way through the post. Here's the whole thing.

There's a photo team in town at the moment, a guy named Jason Varney and his assistant Evan, shooting an article on the best retirement spots around the world for the AARP Magazine. The Languedoc is one of them, and I wound up being the sole person they could find to talk about it. Jason and Evan have already been to Costa Rica, Mexico, and Portugal, and Saturday night they hit Montpellier. I spent a couple of hours showing them around town, although they'd already done some scouting, and around 2, out of nowhere, it started to rain. We took shelter at the Cafe de l'Opéra in front of the Opéra Comique, and ordered Cokes until the shower passed. "Is this a place with a lot of microclimates?" Jason asked. Well, that's what wine-growing is all about, so yeah, I guess. "I'm thinking we should get in the car and go look for some color." I couldn't agree more, actually, so I ran back to the apartment, grabbed a guidebook in case it was necessary, and the roadmaps, and we were off.

Unlike last summer, when it took us two hours just to get out of town, this time we had a GPS, so we set the controls for Sommières, a charming medieval village half-way between Montpellier and Nîmes. Along the way, we passed a lot of colorful stuff, including some famous Gres de Montpellier terroir at the village of Saint-Christol

Jason exited the car to a hearty series of crunches, and exclaimed "My god, look at all the snails!" Thousands of white snails were all over the grass by the side of the roadway in the aftermath of the rain, and it was impossible not to step on at least a few of them.

Back in the car, we headed straight to Sommières, where, it says in The Rough Guide to Languedoc and Roussillon 3 (Rough Guide Travel Guides), Lawrence Durrell spent his last years. I visited very briefly a few years ago and have been meaning to go back, among other reasons because I sort of hallucinated that there were more beautiful women per square meter than anywhere else I'd been in France. We parked near what looks like an idyllic (and very affordable) hotel, the Auberge du Pont Romain, and hiked into the center up a steep hill. The whole town is built on a hill, and the bridge into town actually is a Roman bridge from the first century. The street we were on had a couple of potters' ateliers, which, despite its being Sunday, were open. I was trying to find the market square, and all of a sudden, there it was. There were some tables set up, and a bunch of people sitting around leisurely sharing food. A sign announced it was a "repas de quartier," with food being provided by a small restaurant, Rue Jardinière. We walked through the small gathering when all of a sudden someone started hollering. "Hey! Who are you?" American journalists, we explained. "Well, then, you have to join us!" A woman with grey salt-and-pepper hair was bringing out an aluminum tray with a cut melon on it, and numerous others were gathered around various tartes salées and other goodies. A great amount of rosé wine was also in evidence.

Jason does a lot of food photography, and immediately saw the potential here. I was translating my butt off, and doing a pretty good job. The woman who'd brought the melon turned out to be the proprietoress of the restaurant, and the rest of the crowd were local artists and others from the neighborhood. One very drunk ceramicist was urging me, in a slurred mess of French, English, and Spanish, to bring everyone to his atelier to look at his work.

Eventually, Jason arranged a couple of trays of assorted food in front of some of the crowd, and two of them kissed, and a whole lot of snapping happened. I was stuck on one of the benches as a counterweight to one of the more boisterous women, who was at the other end making sure she got in the picture. I think she saw herself as something of a spokeswoman for the terroir.

We were the hit of the party. Everyone wanted to talk to us, and we definitely made a bunch of friends.

Here, Evan (red shirt) and Jason (green shirt) are tackling one of the local melons, with various other of our new friends looking on (or not).

We finally escaped, heading up the hill for a shot of the not-so-impressive church, then back into the car. It was about 5. I thought it might be good to head for Pic-St.-Loup, the impressive mountain that you can see from Montpellier, so we set the GPS for St. Mathieu-de-Tréviers. We didn't get too far: a village named Gallargues was having its weekend festival, which was all but over. There'd been a running of the bulls, as various sturdy iron fences made evident, and things were winding down.

(This guy was not among them; he was hanging out at a horse farm Jason stopped to photograph).

On our way out of Gallargues, however, we saw a large herd of spectral white Camarguais horses in a field, with the light just right. Jason took photo after photo, as Evan and I noted the large number of actual escargot-type snails hanging around on the driveway we were parked in. I finally went over to shoot the horses myself.

You can see why Jason gets the big bucks and I don't. When I got back from this, there was a guy trying to communicate with Evan. He turned out to be the guy in whose driveway we'd parked, and I offered to move the car. "No, no, just curious about who you were." I told him, and this turned into a long conversation about the snails ("You can eat them, you know." -- he was astonished that I did know that, and had eaten them) and the crawfish -- American crawfish, meaning big ones -- in the nearby river. I explained about Cajuns to him, and we were getting along fine, when Jason returned and it was time to hit the road again.

After passing through a village I'd sure like to hear someone pronounce, Buzignargues, and then lots and lots of vineyards which probably eventually become generic Pic St. Loup wines, we found ourselves approaching Pic St. Loup, through a valley which, on its opposite side, had the bread-loaf figure of another mountain, the Hortus, dominating it. "Some things are great for real life, but not for the camera," was the way Jason put it, and boy, he was right. The Pic is long, and not at all the stereotypical cone-shaped mountain since, like the Hortus, it's made of limestone. It has loads of different parts, and I'd like to see a 3-D representation of it. The Hortus, for its part, apparently has a Neanderthal cave site in it. I noticed the opening of a huge grotto on one side of Pic St. Loup, too.

Jason was right about the real life vs. camera thing, but just to give you an idea what we were about to drive through, check this out:

What you don't see here is the Hortus, the other mountain, which would be looming some ways to the right of this picture, where the road was. You'd need Cinerama to do it justice, really.

We got back in the car and drove through the valley, the GPS fixed on St.-Martin-de-Londres, a town I'd once stopped for lunch in after getting massively lost. I remember it was supposed to have a nice church, and so we parked in the lot I remembered and headed up the hill. One thing that I really got out of this trip was how friendly everyone was: we're out of tourist season, and that seemed to make a difference. We passed a pizza joint and the old man who ran it was sitting outdoors in the sun with a drink, wishing us bonjour, and when we responded, saying something in what was probably Italian. One thing about hanging around with Jason is you get noticed: his camera is huge, and so is the tripod he carries it on. Shooting only natural light, this makes it a pretty stripped-down rig, actually. But it's big.

The church is, in fact, nice, but on Sunday at about 6:15 it was deserted. Here's old Martin himself, about to divide his cloak (beggar not in sight):

And a view from the church of the tightly-put-together town.

"This is real quiet," Jason observed. "Too quiet, in fact." So we packed up, went back to the car, and decided to drive back to Montpellier, because there was a big highway nearby that'd get us there in a straight line.

The whole point of this post is that, leaving town on a wild hair a bit after 3, we managed to see and do all of this, including lengthy stopovers in Sommières and at the field of horses, a detour by that wheatfield above into a town called St. Mathieu de Tréviers (where there was nothing much) and a spin around St. Martin de Londres, and yet we were back where we started (including the nerve-wracking circling of our destination on the one-way streets of inner Montpellier) almost four hours after we left. It only encompasses a tiny part of the map, and I know there are other such trips -- dozens of them -- waiting to be taken, with food, wine, history, and scenery all within an hour or two of my doorstep.

What I'm hoping for now is the time and the resources to do this every now and again, and, finally, a magazine or newspaper or (paying) website actually interested in a story or two about a part of France they've never heard about.

If not, well, I'll keep it for myself. I wouldn't trade Sunday's jaunt for anything. It made me very, very happy to be here.


  1. The looney cheese lady is called Ghys


  2. Horses on the Camargue by Roy Campbell (1930)

    In the grey wastes of dread,
    The haunt of shattered gulls where nothing moves
    But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
    I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
    And, turning, saw afar
    A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
    The silver runaways of Neptune’s car
    Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
    Sons of the Mistral, fleet
    As him with those strong gusts they love to flee,
    Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
    And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
    Theirs is no earthly breed
    Who only haunt the verges of the earth
    And only on the sea’s salt herbage feed –
    Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
    For when for years a slave,
    A horse of the Camargue, in alien lands,
    Should catch some far-off fragrance of the wave
    Carried far inland from his native sands,
    Many have told the tale
    Of how in fury, foaming at the rein,
    He hurls his rider; and with lifted tail,
    With coal red eyes, and cataracting mane,
    Heading his course for home,
    Though sixty leagues before him sweep,
    Will never rest until he breathes the foam
    And hears the native thunder of the deep.
    But when the great gusts rise
    And lash their anger on these arid coasts,
    When the scared gulls career with mournful cries
    And whirl across the waste like driven ghosts:
    When hail and fire converge,
    The only souls to which they strike no pain
    Are the white-crested fillies of the surge
    And the white horses of the windy plain.
    Then in their strength and pride
    The stallions of the wilderness rejoice;
    They feel their Master’s trident in their side,
    And high and shrill they answer to his voice.
    With white tails smoking free,
    Long streaming manes, and arching necks, they show
    Their kinship to their sisters of the sea –
    And forward hurl their thunderbolts of snoow.
    Still out of hardship bred,
    Spirits of power and beauty and delight
    Have ever on such frugal pastures fed
    And loved to course with tempests through the night.

  3. They might have liked the old part of Les Matelles which is very picturesque.


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