September 2008 Languedoc by Eanna Brophy

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The 47m high Pont du Gard a notable Roman engineering work in Nimes, around since 19BC and still sturdy. 

The invitation to visit Languedoc Roussillon described it as a Cultural and Gastronomic Trip, so, two airports and a coach-drive later we were in Aigues-Mortes near the Mediterranean coast.

We didn’t get to see the sea, though: this was a cultural (and gastronomic) tour and by golly we were going to be shown the famous fortifications of the citadel whence King (later St) Louis IX set sail on his crusades to the Holy Land.

It had been raining when we left Ireland at dawn, so it was a pleasure to be sitting instead in dappled sunshine under a tree in the courtyard of the massive tower that still stands intact after all the years since it was built in 1240.

I had decided to mitch from the guided tour of the ramparts; it was being translated into three languages (we having found ourselves appended, almost as an afterthought, it seemed, to the rump of a much larger group of Spanish and French travel writers – and one German).

After standing sweating in this tower for some considerable time one began to have pangs of sympathy for the unfortunate Protestants (Huguenots) who were locked up here indefinitely when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. (I hope you’re all paying attention down there at the back).

 

A section of the magnificent Pont du Gard near Montpelier.

So we were looking thirstily forward to our next stop, billed as a “Tasting of Exceptional Fruit Juices.”

Our coach first diverted a little to show us the rice fields – they actually do grow rice in that part of France – but the fields looked just like you’d see in Ireland any day: green and waterlogged.

On then to the “Costieres de Nimes” where owner Cyril Larouzieres was waiting to pour us some welcome samples of his “exceptional fruit juices”.

Only not immediately: first there was the mandatory one-hour lecture followed by questions and answers about his organic horticultural methods. All in baking sunshine, with simultaneous translations.

It began to feel as though our party had been infiltrated by a bunch of agricultural journalists, so assiduous was their questioning and note-taking.

Your perspiring monoglot correspondent feared nobody would ever ask if we had a mouth on us. But at long last we all traipsed under the trees, banging our heads off low-growing branches, to sample the produce. It was quite nice.

We had a beautiful dinner (and no speeches) that evening in the courtyard restaurant “l’ex-aequo”. Well worth seeking out if you find yourself in Nimes. The address is 11 rue Bigot (really), and the website is www.exaequorestaurant.fr

 

A guided tour of Nimes next day brought to life that city’s rich Roman legacy: not only does it have an ancient forum and a temple in a superb state of preservation (with renovation work ongoing) but it also has an eye-popping Coliseum.

It’s still in use today – but mainly for concerts and other events. No Christians being thrown to the lions (in fact, I gather this never did happen in ancient Rome either).

There followed a magnificent buffet lunch at the Brasserie Annexe. The occasion was to mark the launch of the new gastronomic guide “Gastronomie, produit du Terroir et Oenologie”, edited by the Gard Tourist Board.

Available in a number of languages, including English, it’s a nicely-illustrated guide to the riches of food and wine that abound in this part of France, complete with delicious recipes. They include one that begins “The day before, place the pieces of bull in a salad bowl. Peel and slice the carrots and onions …”.

Yes indeed, they produce and consume some 500 tons of edible bull every year there; I find that hard to swallow.

Moving swiftly on: we were then brought to see some more ancient towers and castles. I was beginning to much prefer the “Gastronomic” to the “Cultural” part of this trip.

That night’s splendid dinner was in the hotel Vieux Castillon – a Relais et Chateaux establishment which also boasts a much welcome pool with views over the surrounding countryside.

The enjoyment of the food was enhanced by the fact that each course was introduced and described to us by a head waiter who was the dead spit of Sam Beckett.

But he did go on, and on … (that’s a literary joke).

François Rabelais

Speaking of which, I haven’t even mentioned Rabelais yet. Those of you familiar with the works of this great French satirist (and I’m sure you are legion) will know that he was a French Renaissance writer, a Franciscan monk, humanist and physician, and that his comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel are among the most hilarious classics of world literature (it says here).

His heroes are grossly rude giants in a world full of greed, stupidity, violence, and grotesque jokes. Naturally, his books were banned by the Catholic Church and later placed on The Index of Forbidden Books.

 

 

Throughout the autumn of 2008 the Languedoc Roussillon region was celebrating the works of Rabelais with a series of art exhibitions and other events, giving various artists’ interpretations of his writings.

As part of the Rabelais festival, there will be around 30 exhibitions around Languedoc-Roussillon this summer devoted to art which takes François Rabelais as its theme. Known collectively as “Rabelais defrosted”, the exhibitions will take place between now and 28 September, at museums and historic sites and also in the parks and streets of the region’s towns.

We went to see several of these. The most interesting (and least baffling) one was in the town of Sète, at the CRAC (Regional Centre of Contemporary Art) where you could also trace others who had been influenced by Rabelais. (Salvador Dali of course, and even Glen Baxter, a selection of whose hilarious surreal postcards was on display).

Another “must” of our sojourn in the port town of Sète was a visit to the local fish auction. Surreal. There’s a joke there somewhere about waiting for cod .. oh forget it.

 

 

Earlier the same day we visited the Pont du Gard. A true work of art, architecture and engineering, it was built by the Romans to bring 20,000 cubic metres of water every day from the River Eure to Nimes.

The Romans liked to keep their occupied people happy with bread and circuses – and water. The day we were there the temperature was 34 Centigrade, so one could see it made sense.

There is an interpretive centre nearby; one may question their proliferation, but this one told the story very well, and a guided walk across the Pont, conducted by a brilliant young multilinguist was the highlight of the whole five-day trip.

In a beautiful setting, with riparian and woodland walking trails close by, this is definitely worth a detour from any part of France.

 

And so we came to Montpellier, a surprisingly big city (but then quite a few French cities are like that when you come from Ireland: I speak as one who has got lost in most of them on many a camping/driving holiday).

Apart from the fact that its tram system is the model for our own dear Luas (minus the lacuna), I knew little of Montpellier, but our guided tour of the old town centre whetted the appetite for a return visit: it’s a place of shaded hidden courtyards, small squares and intriguing, atmospheric side-streets: then you step out into a sunlit boulevard that rivals Paris.

It turns out that the city had exactly those pretensions, but ran out of money with the job half done.

 

The grand finale of our visit to Languedoc Roussillon was Le Festin Rabelais, a giant gourmet picnic in the Jardins Royaux du Peyrou in the centre of Montpellier.

Dozens of stands featured the work of local chefs and restaurants, and the customers bought a book of tokens on entry, which they exchanged for the meals and drinks of their choice before retiring to picnic tables under the adjacent trees.

A great local band played music that sounded like a blend of the Chieftains and the Buena Vista Social Club.

What it all had to do with Rabelais I could not fathom, but after some inspired savoury dishes and several samples of the local wines, who cared?

 

BY AIR: Neither Ryanair nor Aer Lingus flies directly into Montpellier. Carcassonne is the closest direct flight you’ll get by Ryanair, followed by a four-hour drive. The closest you’ll get with Aer Lingus are either Marseilles or Toulouse, both about an hour further away. We got there by EasyJet from London Gatwick: the airport transit was smooth, and their staff were much nicer than those portrayed in the “reality” TV series a while back.

ROAD AND RAIL: France’s magnificent network of roads makes the whole country accessible (if you can afford the petrol) while the great rail network of SNCF offers a wide range of routes and tickets.

More information from www.sunfrance.com

 

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