Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mountains, Rain, and a Walled City

Some weeks ago, my old friend John, who, in the years since I've last seen him,  has acquired a doctorate in archaeology, a post at the University of Guam, and a new wife, informed me that he had to come to Europe for a conference and had added some vacation time to that so he and his wife could do some travelling. Montpellier was on the list.

Everything should have been perfect. Oh, it was a little late in the year, sure, and it was neither as sunny nor as warm as it usually is down here, but that shouldn't matter. And then our recent storms hit. More rain than is normal for this time of year. More severe winds than usual. And John had rented a car for three days.

They got in on Friday morning, with intermittent showers, and of course the hotel wasn't ready yet. (He'd managed to score a room at the Hotel du Palais, about which I'd heard good things, which he confirmed: room small yet comfortable, location unbeatable). We walked around town, but the storm held off until we were eating dinner, when it pounded down for a short bit. Fortunately, that was while we were inside, and it didn't start up again until all concerned were back home.

I'd wanted to test out my Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour on someone, and now I had my experimental subjects. Picking up the car the next morning, we did the usual ritual of getting lost getting out of town, but my many expeditions with E. and J. over the summer has taught me a lot about getting in and out of Montpellier despite the horrid one-way tangles and badly-marked roads. Soon we were on our way to the first stop, Sommières, where I learned a valuable lesson: park at the ruins of the supermarket that got done in by the 2002 flood and walk across the Roman bridge into town. It was sprinkling on and off, but the car, a great honking Ford thing, was dry enough, and after we'd run around the town some -- it being a fine introduction to the villages dotted around the area -- we got back in the car, pointed ourselves through the vineyards, and headed to St. Martin de Londres via the road which goes between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, with the two mountains appearing and disappearing in the mist from the rain showers which were getting stronger.

We surprised a small herd of wild boars just past the mountains as we headed down into the valley which took us to St. Martin. There, we jumped out of the car, climbed the hill, and looked at the 12th century church and surroundings. This is where the lucky tourist begins to see the magic set in. There's no explaining it, but this tiny once-walled village really has It, whatever It is. It also has a very good little restaurant that makes better-than-average pizzas, and we repaired there for a late lunch.

The next stop was the Pont du Diable and St. Guilhem le Désert, if the rain allowed. It did and it didn't. It was coming down hard enough that we didn't even bother to get out and walk to the bridge (it's visible from the highway anyway) and turned off to the road up the mountain to St. Guilhem in the last gasp of the rainstorm. The Hérault River was in full force, thundering along with plenty of white water, a couple of flash-floods crept across the road, and at one point, a spume of water shot out of a hole in the mountain right by the river, making a dramatic temporary waterfall. This just made St. Guilhem all the more atmospheric when we got there. There's a stream which goes through the town, and it was right up to the top of its banks, making lots of noise. John, as a card-carrying UNESCO consultant, was blown away by the town, its ruins up the mountain, and the near-perfection of the church, a masterpiece of French Romanesque architecture. The absolute lack of tourists, too, contributed to the atmosphere.

So I'd just proved that the Greatest Hits tour worked. John was ecstatic, we'd hit lunchtime perfectly, and we were back in Montpellier by 5:15 in the afternoon, plenty of time for some downtime and preparation for dinner.

The next day, John had two goals. First was to see Nîmes, with its Roman stuff. Second was to go to Aigues-Mortes, a walled city which had once been an important port, not only to see the sights, but to look at the surrounding area, its salt flats, and the way it had silted up, killing the port. He does a lot of work with the archeology of climate change, and he suspected that Aigues-Mortes would confirm a lot of his theories.

We got to Nîmes and did the usual -- the Roman temple, called the Maison Carrée, and the arena -- and would have headed up the hill to the other temple, but we were running out of time, and really, Aigues Mortes was the most important. It's conveniently located between Nimes and Montpellier, and, being a major tourist attraction, it was easy enough to find. And sure enough, it had walls.

We walked in through a main gate and soon found ourselves in the center, where the church that St. Louis used to launch the two last Crusades in 1248 and 1270 is still standing.

As you can see from my typically awful photo, there is lots and lots of tourist tack in town, with lots of souvenir shops open even on a Sunday afternoon. And there were even some (French) tourists! 

The big attraction, however, is the Constance Tower, built to defend the king's house from everything else. The King not only led Crusades out of here, he hung out a lot because the town was built expressly to be the French kingdom's port on the Mediterranean. It wasn't until 1481, 223 years after the port in Aigues-Mortes was developed, that the kingdom of Provence joined with the French crown, at which time the combination of the harbor silting up and the far better facilities in Marseille transferred the royal port over there. Some 204 years later, in 1685, the Edict of Nantes was revoked and being a Protestant became a crime. This caused another uptick in Aigues-Mortes' fortunes, because the towers in the walls became prisons to hold Protestants, many of whom were found right in town, while others came from neighboring communities: the entire Languedoc was a hotbed of Protestantism. 

The Constance Tower is the one visible in the first photo here with the lighthouse sprouting out of its top, and you can go up it and along some of the ramparts for €7, unless you can provide a magic card which says you consult for UNESCO and get in free. It's a pretty cool building (considering that it was a prison) and has a great view of the town from the roof. 

In addition, there are two levels to the tower, and a small window set in its roof, which slightly lessens the gloom -- although today, electric lights also help. 

We didn't even go out to the ramparts, becasue once again dark was settling in, and John had his sights set on something one could see from the tower's top:

That's salt, and they've been pulling it out of the salt flats since the first century AD, when a Roman engineer named Peccatus (an interesting name for all you Latin scholars out there) opened the salt works there. Today, in season, you can visit them by driving to the Sauniers de Camargue plant and getting on a little train which takes you around the modern version of Peccatus' enterprise. Salt-water seagrass grows alongside the road as you go there, and John was happy that his assumptions about what had happened there were apparently correct. 

From there, we headed to Grau de Roi, which wasn't, as I'd thought, just a summertime beach community, but also had a small working fishing fleet. We walked down a short street to the beach, and the Mediterranean stretched before us as dark came on. I made a mental note to come back some time and check out some of the fish restaurants, which were intriguing and not as commercial-looking as some of the others I'd seen. 

Like the ones in Sète, which was our last day's journey. John wanted a plate of raw seafood, and that would be Monday's lunch. To whet our appetites, we climbed the hill in the middle of the town (in the car: we're not stupid) and looked at the panorama from there. There was a bit of haze, so I'm not sure we could see all the way to Montpellier, but there was a great lot of high surf crashing into the breakwaters and the beaches beyond. I'm no judge of these things, but it looked like it was a rare instance of good surfing being possible in the Mediterranean. We walked into the center of the lookout area, where there's a huge cross and a sound installation which was turned off for the season, and John kept staring at the rocks at our feet. "There's a lot of pottery here," he said, picking some up. Then he grabbed another rock. "A stone tool." Really? "Sure. You can get one or two of these breaks naturally, but this has obviously been worked." Great: an unknown Neolithic site right in the middle of Sète. Stupidly, I didn't take the tool home with me, so it's still up there -- along with who knows what else. 

We were about to head down, but saw some signs for another panorama, at a site called Pierres Blanches, white rocks. Curious, we headed down the other side of the hill and found a parking lot. It's a nice park, with lots of local cedars and pines, from which you can see a lot that the other, higher, vantage doesn't show, particularly to the west and north. On a clear day, you can evidently see the Pyrenees, which I certainl didn't expect. You can also see all the oyster beds in the Étang de Thau from both of them, so after John paid his respects at Paul Valéry's grave in a dramatic hilltop cemetery, we headed back down for a lunch of local seafood. A great end to a tour of the immediate area, I thought. 

So this morning, after a visit to the market to stock up on local cheeses and sausages, they headed to catch a train which will take them to Milan tonight, and, tomorrow morning, to Venice. 

Now...who's the next lucky person who gets to take this tour going to be?


  1. P.S. Your photos are not "awful."

  2. Ed the tour-guide is very impressive knowing my country better than I do.
    Bravo Monsieur Ward

  3. @Will: yeah, chopping the top off a church is really good photography. (Fortunately, it appears from above in another picture).

    @gbd: Dude, if you'd ever leave Paris *you* might know your country better. Or head down here and I'll show it to you!

  4. Got to go St Guilem once on a sunny day. I wanted to rip out the speakers in the abbey playing Gregorian chants. I did like the saint's knuckle bone in a vitrine of relics.

    Will probably die not having seen Sete and Aigues Mortes. Oh well!

    Got a Thanksgiving Day greeting from our mutual friend Mme. R. It was she who took us to St. Guillem.

    Mike Eisenstadt, tief in der Herz von Texas


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