Word came down from on high that Geezer Pete was going to pay a visit. About time, I thought; I hadn't seen this guy in years and years, and, since he'd moved from the idyllic Buckinghamshire countryside to a remote location far from the nearest "big town" in Scotland (said town is Dingwall, in case you want to shake your head with disbelief that anyone would move there on purpose), I hadn't seen him. That's been eight years.
Naturally, I assumed that he'd come to his senses after eight winters in remote Scotland, and was thinking of moving down here, so for his two-day getaway, I planned a day of showing him the glories of Montpellier (to be perfectly honest, a day's glory, unless there's something decent on at the Musée Fabre, which there almost never is, is how much this town can give the curious tourist) and a day in a rented car exploring other bits and pieces of the Languedoc. I figured we'd start in Sommières, then hit St.-Martin-de-Londres, then Aniane, and then see what time it was and where we were and go further in one direction or another. I could use a day out of town, actually.
As I expected, he was enthralled with Montpellier itself. Never hurts to ask your guests to arrive on Tuesday morning and whisk them off to the market at the Arceaux. Not much new and fresh there, but the strawberries were reliably red and the asparagus deeply green, and there was a lot of both. There's a farm which shows up on Tuesdays which often has really unusual stuff, and they certainly didn't disappoint this time: they had a basket of cabbage flowers, and another of turnip flowers. A lady shopping there told me you cook cabbage flowers like asparagus and use turnip flowers in a salad. If I'd been cooking that night for myself I'd have tried that advice on, but I decided it'd be a better idea to hit a restaurant. Anyway, my apartment is so small I can't have dinner guests. The walk around town was fine, the sun performed as expected, and Pete kept saying "I can see why you like it here." Later, we stopped for a glass of wine at L'Acolyte, where we sat outside and watched the passing scene, and then moseyed down to Le Chat Perché, whose menu, I'd noted a day or so earlier, had been revised after a long spell of no change. It was as good as ever: Pete started with fresh pea soup with crumbled bacon and had seiches a la plancha, those local cuttlefish sautéed to perfection, afterwards, and I had a great foie gras terrine with a layer of apricots through its center perched on toasted pain d'épices followed by chicken medallions napped with a cream of crayfish-tail sauce. (No, I didn't have quite enough crawfish in Louisiana, thanks.
Today's plan was for me to get up extra early (7am) and be ready to head to the car rental agency at 9 to pick up a car. Which we did: by 9:30 we'd found our way out of the horrid traffic jam of downtown Montpellier and onto a road which, while not the one I was looking for, got us to where we were going, ie, Sommières, in good time. It was a brilliant day to be out, with seemingly every wildflower native to the region, including scarlet poppies, in full blossom, and warm sun cutting a slight chill. Once we found a place to park in Sommières, we wandered around the medieval market square, and then headed up the hill to the castle. I'd seen this hunk of stone overlooking the city, but didn't know a thing about it.
We weren't the only folks up there; a class of schoolchildren and a couple of teachers with them were listening to a woman giving a presentation, but it was easy enough to read the plaque set into the wall you could look over and see the whole town, and to pick out the landmarks on it.
We wandered along the castle wall, looking to see if there were a way in, and noticed that it was pretty much in ruins.
Pretty ruins, but ruins nonetheless. Finally I reached a sign with the plans of restoration noted on it, which plans seem to be a bit behind. We turned around and headed back to where the kids had been, and Pete mentioned that they'd gone through an iron gate, so we, too, did so and found our way inside the castle's walls with the kids. The woman who'd been lecturing them came over and said "I'm from the Department of Patrimony, and we've opened this especially for the kids. You're welcome to join our tour, but otherwise you're not authorized to be here, sorry." We decided not to hang with the kids, and descended into the village on a warren of tiny, narrow streets.
Quite the picturesque town, Sommières.
Back in the car, we tried to puzzle out the route to the road that'd take us between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, the giant limestone escarpment just across from it, and got lost a couple of times in the countryside. A bit (well, a lot) of backtracking later, we finally found it, but not until we'd crossed Sommière's Roman bridge four times. As I remarked as we waited for the light on the bridge to turn green, it makes me a little nervous that the handiwork of people who died about a century after Christ did was all that kept me from falling into the river, but it's the only way into and out of the town, so there we sat.
Springtime made the drive to the mountains even more spectacular than it normally is, and as we came around the corner of Pic St. Loup, and down into the garrigue, Pete noted that the nature of the countryside had changed utterly between where we'd started and where we were now, and I told him that there was more to come, although really, the drive past Pic St. Loup is the closest to Disneyland that the trip would probably get. We drove through several major wine terroirs, and soon enough we were in St.-Martin-de-Londres. We parked by the graveyard, and walked up the hill to the 11th Century church, which was, as usual, closed. Some day I'm going to get into that damn church and see what it looks like inside. Taking a different way down the hill in St.-Martin than I usually take, I stopped to take a picture of Pic St. Loup framed by the village houses.
Back down in the market square, I bought a ham croissant for lunch and as we sat down while I ate it, Pete told me he felt terrible: "wavy" and nauseous, and in bad need of lying down. He didn't look so hot, so we went in search of a pharmacy, but didn't find one. (The shop with the cross on the sign we headed to at one point turned out to be a veterinarian, where we agreed he'd have stepped in if it had been open). But the rest of the trip was aborted, we boogied back to Montpellier and its horror traffic (30 minutes of the trip were spent mired in tramline 3 construction trying to get back to the train-station where the Avis joint was) and, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the trip was over.
Right now, Pete's back at his hotel napping, and I hope he's okay. The trip just left me wanting more, I have to say: it's amazing out there in the boondocks just now, with the blooming fields and countryside adding a grace-note of perfection to the sights. I wish someone would show up tomorrow wanting to see more and whisk me away from the desk here, but instead Pete's taking a plane to England, and I'll be back here transcribing interviews. Still, it was nice while it lasted.
10 months ago