Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Night On The Town, A Day On The River

Much of this week has been spent with the arrival of a number of people, all of whom know each other, none of whom I knew before they started descending on me here. The original deal was that the duo known as the Just Desserts were coming here to busk. But Michael Shay, the cellist, was in Denmark at a studio in a barn somwhere outside Aarhus producing an album by a songwriter named Lillis Urban. So first Lisa, the accordion-playing half of the duo, showed up and busked the markets and squares of Montpellier, and then Michael and Lillis showed up, and the three of them busked around town, with a show at the Globe, an English-language used bookstore, on Saturday night, being the focal part of the stay here, after when they'd work their way to Italy. Somewhere in there, a friend of Michael's named Melissa showed up with her 8-year-old son Orion, and they all wound up in a house rented to them by the mother of some hippie girl Lisa found while busking.

There won't be a test on this later, so don't worry.

At any rate, Thursday and Friday, Lisa managed to get an all-instrumental gig for her and Michael at La Coquille, a beautiful and excellent restaurant which stands at one end of a long green plaza with a statue of a unicorn at one end, lined by a number of lovely houses, one of which was Marshall Foch's headquarters before the First World War. This left Lillis with nothing to do, so we went out to Le Chat Perché Thursday, and then on Friday we decided to hit the Estivales. This is a summer-long evening deal in which little booths sell handcrafts, but on Friday night, three tents hold wine-tastings and all manner of foods are sold, tables are set up, and tons of people come out to enjoy the night air. I went last year and was crippled by no money and no taste buds. This year, not only did I have a little dough in my pockets, but my taste has returned for most of the day -- including the evening.

Thus, around 8 on Friday night Lillis and I stood on line, paid our €4, got our tasting glasses and three tickets for free samples, and plunged into the mob. There was tons of food on offer: raw seafood...

...local sausage, Lebanese food, Japanese food, something the vendor insists are bagels (I reserve judgement), open-face sandwiches with things like brandade de morue on them,  these mysterious green burger-like things called farçou made from swiss chard, ham, eggs, and various other things, sort of like a French take on falafel and amazingly delicious, little salads in plastic glasses to whet your appetite...

...and of course moules-frites, mussels and french fries.

At the tasting tents we decided to get different wines each time, and to stick to rosés because that's what was right for the season. The night was muggy (it even rained for a minute or two), so the wine's crispness was welcome. We managed to hit a bunch of different ones, mostly Pic St. Loup and Terrasses de Larzac, and although I wasn't taking notes, I think I at least remember what the good wines' labels looked like. In two cases I got printed material, and can report that Domaine Aubrespy, in the hills overlooking the Étang du Thau near Sète makes a dark rosé called Cuvée Flavie, with a deep fruity nose and a wonderfully complex finish for the whopping price of five euros a bottle, and that the good folks over at La Gravette de Corconne own a Pic St. Loup territory whose rosé is a bit lighter, but no less complicated. We chose this for the meal, and then stood in line to watch a huge rectangular pan of mussels over a wood fire being splashed with white wine and loads of garlic, and, when we finally got our order (they were having trouble with the fryolater for the fries), we walked over to a table and sat down with the rest of Montpellier. Unlike my visit to this event last year, our neighbors weren't at all chatty, and ignored us, but we'd already had so much fun that it didn't matter, and watching someone who'd never even heard of this part of the world a week ago experience all of this bounty and, um, joie de vivre made up for it. Plus, the smoky garlicky mussels were out of this world to my newly-revived taste buds.

Meanwhile, Lisa and Michael, who have spent considerable time in Ecuador chasing folk music there, discovered that the best friend of one of their best Ecuadorian friends lives in Montpellier, and when they contacted them, the Ecuadorians, Sergio and Anna, invited us out to a picnic in the countryside on Saturday. The deal was for us to meet at the market at 12:30. By this time Melissa and Orion had showed, and they had a car. Sergio and Anna, had their own car -- and a two-year-old son, Simón. So there was lots of room for me to tag along if I wanted, and I wanted.

But first I had to fill up on some stuff at the market, haul it home, and then return. I got there early, just in time to see the musicians arrive. Michael was going to do other stuff, so Lisa and Lillis set up, and in no time had attracted groupies:

This guy is a cheese merchant who was set up across from them, and who had the habit of walking over to them just as they were about to sing and sticking big pieces of his merchandise in their mouths. He also did some impromptu solos on a duck call.

Anyway, I got my shopping done, and we all convened back at the market just after 12:30. I got in the car with Melissa driving and Michael and Orion in the back seat, and we took off, following Sergio and Anna. I had never heard of the place they said we were going, so I just lay back and took mental notes. We wound around Pic St. Loup and the Hortus, avoiding them completely, and went past signs pointing us to St. Martin de Londres, and soon we were in unknown territory for me -- just what I wanted.

We passed over a small stream called Lamalou, and left the main road, headed towards a tiny village on the Hérault River called St.-Étienne d'Issensac. We crossed the river on a one-lane bridge with triangular cutouts so that pedestrians could stand away from vehicular traffic, a bridge dating back to the early Middle Ages, built because the road was on the route for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Parking under some trees, we hacked our way through a bit of garrigue to the water's edge and set up shop. I had no idea that water would be involved, but it didn't really matter; I don't enjoy swimming at all, and don't even own a bathing suit. So for the next four hours, the rest of the folks swam in the Hérault and set up a fire with twigs from nearby trees and charcoal, and we enjoyed grilled sausages (saucisse de Lyon and merguez, the spicy lamb sausage) and bread and cheese under the sun. I managed a couple of pictures looking up one way along the river...

...and down the other.

Because the Just Desserts and Lillis had a gig that evening (Lisa and Lillis had stayed behind to accept a lunch invitation from an eccentric old painter they'd met at the market), we got ready to leave around 5, and in deference to the non-swimming history freak, we made a brief stop at the 12th Century church, once part of a religious community which had numbered 68 people. Sergio and Anna were astonished to find its door was open, because some artist from Nimes had made an installation out of white sugar, salt, sand and, er, rubber gloves inside the mostly barren structure.

The outbuildings where the religious folks had lived are still sort of standing, too.

And the old graveyard, whose stones are too worn to decipher, but whose lettering shows that this place was operating until at least 200 years ago (and some of the graves are still getting flowers laid on them, so probably longer, although one site says that the place was burned in the 18th Century, so who knows) has a gorgeous view of some of the nearby mountains through its trees.

Because they live closer to me than the house the Desserts et. al. were in, I rode from here back into Montpellier with Sergio and Anna and got an earful of ideas for places to visit nearby where I could sate my serious history jones, with Mauguelone, with a cathedral and almost nothing else in town (it was burned to the ground during the Wars of Religion) being near enough that it may well be my next day-trip. As an added bonus, it turns out they'd had the same problems with their telephone that I'd had, and now I know exactly what I have to do next. What an amazing day!

I'm determined to do more of this kind of thing this summer, and in September when the temperatures start to sink a bit there are long-distance walking trails which also sound appealing. Sergio was talking about how the Cevennes mountains north of here were hotbeds of Protestantism and the architecture in the villages reflects this. Another thing to investigate.

And as for the Estivales on Friday, as luck would have it, two friends from Berlin are pulling into town this Friday afternoon. Right: who wants to be next? You have until the end of August!

(Town pix by Lillis Urban, country pix by Yrs Trly)


  1. I'm having as much trouble commenting as you were getting phone service. Changed my typepad profile twice and still no luck

  2. Ok, I posted, and now I have to get approval? What kind of insane nanny state did you move to, Ed?


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