Monday, January 16, 2012

2011: The Year In Pictures

One of the things I never expected blogging to do was to get me interested in photography. But from the first day Jesse Sublett showed me his digital camera in Austin and I snapped to how easy it was to use, I was hooked. That was a long time ago, back when I lived in Berlin, and the quality of the pictures sure wasn't all that great -- your phone probably takes higher-resolution pictures than my first camera did. I know mine does. But bit by bit I started figuring out how to use both a camera and the sofware that can tweak the photos to look better and overcome some of the problems not having film causes. And, since I didn't have the cost of film to worry about, I could just shoot and shoot and toss the bad ones. I sorta specialize in bad ones.

Thus, I figured it would be a good idea to sum up the year on this blog every January, showcasing some of the pictures I took, both the ones you did and didn't see. (Don't forget: clicking on the photos will bring them up in a larger format).

Last year ended with the shutter button on my faithful old camera sproinging out on the end of its spring. This, I was reliably informed, was un-fixable. Fortunately, I had just enough to buy a new one, and, when an assignment sent me to Castellón, in the Valencia region of Spain in late January, I had an opportunity to test it out. I got to my hotel, pulled out the camera, and set out to discover this lovely small city.

The camera didn't work. At all. I shot some okay shots with my iPhone instead, but I was furious. When I got back to Montpellier, I took it to a camera shop that was the designated repair location for this area and...well, the denouement is too embarrassing to go into. Let's just say that it wasn't entirely my fault, and that there's a bit of a design flaw in this camera.

Which meant that the first shots the new machine took that were at all interesting happened on my annual pilgrimage to the States. Spring was just happening in Texas, and in mid-March I went to Cajun country to do a few interviews for the book I'm going to write as soon as my agent sells it. On my way to Ville Platte in search of a superb hot sauce I used to buy there, I had a fantastic photo just fall into my lap. I still can't believe I took it.

The hot sauce proved to be no longer made, the old man who made it long retired, and that morning would have been a complete wash were it not for this photo, the boudin at the guy's former store, and a side-journey to Mamou which resulted in yet another shot of another building, which I remember having been some kind of snack bar years and years ago, but which hasn't been anything much lately.

I also got to eat, after almost a decade away, at the area's iconic crawfish joint, Hawk's, which is, as their t-shirts and ads proudly say, "in the middle of nowhere." It is indeed almost impossible to find, even with a Cajun in the car, and at one point we wound up driving into someone's (dry, fortunately) rice field. My friend Dickie laughed at me for sticking my camera into the food, but nine months later, I can click on the photo and remember how good those 'bugs were.

Returning to France, I spent the next three months banging out a book proposal, so there wasn't a whole lot of visual interest produced around here. In August, though, an old friend from New York invited me to visit him and his wife at her reconditioned farmhouse in the Dordogne. It was a lovely spot, and I shot some fairly good pictures around there, given that sunshine wasn't as readily available as it is down here.

I was lucky in that my friend's wife took off for a few days in Paris during my stay and left me one of their cars to tool around the countryside in. It was high tourist season, but tourists are predictable, so it wasn't hard to avoid most of the places they were. One of the nicest places I found was a small town called Elvès, which I think would make a good central point for further explorations of the area. There were some very nice buildings there, but some of the coolest stuff was on doors and walls. I kind of liked this old sign, warning beggars away: 

And this traditional farmer's wreath, made from the principal grains of the region, is hung each harvest as a gesture of thanksgiving. 

Weirdly, one of my favorite shots from this whole trip was taken as I waited for the train that would eventually lead me back home, with the last couple of drops of battery on my iPhone as I waited at the Les Eyzies train station. They just don't build 'em like this any more. 

Not long after I returned, I got an e-mail from some readers of my blog, a couple who'd just moved here after scouting much of southern Europe for a decent retirement spot. E&J may be retired, but they're sure not slowed down, and we've taken to doing a trip into the surrounding countryside on the average of once a week. Since their interests and mine coincide almost totally, this has been a godsend, because I can neither afford a car nor the $3000 it would cost me to get a French drivers license. I've documented these trips from the first one on, but I've also taken so many pictures that there hasn't been room for most of them.

I spend a lot of time shooting into the mountains and valleys, and I must say, this isn't even about skill: Stevie Wonder could take just as good photographs as I do in this part of the world. For instance, after climbing the hill on which Olargues is built, I grabbed these.

The map says these are the Monts de l'Espinouse, about which I know litle, but hey, there's a whole new year ahead of us.

Drinking and driving may be a French national sport, but E doesn't engage in it, which is good: someone has to be sober on these little back roads. Still, one day as we tootled along, I couldn't resist asking him to pull in to one winery, which is one of my very favorites around here, so I could take a nice clichéd photo:

We'll be back for a tasting at some point, though: they might have some wines they don't sell in the shops, and I do like the way Mas de la Seranne makes their stuff. 

Recently, our journeys have taken us to oppida, Roman settlements providing goods and services for travellers along the system of Roman roadways, one of which, the Via Domitia, passed right through this area. There are a lot of remains of these, including the most famous, Ambrussum, which is a must-see for anyone interested in this part of history in this region -- and a place whose ruined Roman bridge got painted by Courbet. 

Okay, his painting was maybe better than that (it had an extra arch, for one thing: it's been washing away for years), but the winter light around here is quite different than the Really Blue Sky gives you in the summertime. Both are wonderful, but somehow this is more subtle.

Oddly, some of the best shots I got were on one of the most recent trips, to the oppidum of Ensérune, which not only resulted in the blog post that was possibly the most fun to write of all of them this year, but some really nice photos. Part of it was because besides its hilltop location, it was near a weird 13th century engineering project which looks like a UFO landing-site. In the annals of almost-great photos, this circle of light hit the circle in the valley moments before the shutter clicked, but the wind had driven it on by the time the picture got taken. Still a pretty nice shot.

The wind, though, did help to make another shot work out nicely, sculpting these trees over the years.

And the vineyards below are patiently waiting for the weather to change.

One thing I want to do this year is to explore some of the religious history around here, because the Languedoc has been home to loads of "protestants," ie, those who resisted the Roman Catholic church over the years, yet the area around here is loaded with abbeys and other ecclesiastical buildings. This speaks to a tension which spilled over into politics, thanks to the relationship between the French king and the Pope. At some point I hope to get a bit further south than I am now to look at some of the Cathars' strongholds, but there's still lots within a day's drive of here to look at.

And you never know when, as happened in the Dordogne, you stumble upon a church whose art hasn't been erased by the centuries of religious warfare which is so much a part of French history...

...or the odd bit of sculpture which hasn't been smashed.

So I'm really looking forward to the year ahead, having culinary, travel, and historical adventures, puzzling them all out, and reporting them to you from the City On A Hill, Montpellier.


  1. Great pix !
    Bravo monsieur Ward

  2. Ed, great photos. We spent a month in 96 and another in 98 in the Dordogne in a farm house we rented in a village called St. Julien de Crempse, and the place looked just like your friends' house. Beautiful around there, very rural. The functional equivalent of vacationing in the middle of nowhere in rural Alabama in the U.S. Nice people, nobody spoke a word of English, great farmers markets, great Routiers, unbelievably cheap, and not a designer boutique in sight.

    Lucian Truscott

  3. Beautiful pictures, the colors are so bright.
    Ed I was wondering if you know of a good holiday rental company in the area. Would like to rent a home for a couple of days between Montpellier and Toulouse. thank you! KJR

    1. There are bunches of them, but let's take this to e-mail. Comment again with your e-mail, and I'll not publish the post.


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