A ‘French Poodle’ ( part 2): ‘La Soliel brille’ or “Ich haber am sunan brandt”.

Wine comes from vineyards !!

What else could I possibly open 'part deux' with. A vineyard in the Minervois area of Languedoc. This is what the south of France is all about, Sun, Wine and tranquil retreat.

There’s no other way to see France than to ‘poodle’, that is to just gently meander through the countryside at a leisurely pace, taking in all that is to be seen, eaten and drunk (though not if you are the driver – the Kermits have finally begun to deal with their massive drink drive history which saw thousands killed each year in horrific road wrecks – the roadways are still eerily lined with black cut-out figures of men, women and children at the spots where they died, again something I think  we should consider, especially in Wales where motorcyclists regularly meet severe death on our windy roads).  Yes poodling along at a steady 56 mph (their equivalent speed limit on unrestricted roads) not only allows one to have a chance of seeing the countryside, not least because the roads I travel are long, straight and quiet, but also has a remarkable effect on fuel economy.  Originally I had intended to set forth in my ‘expedition vehicle’, what other than a Land Rover Discovery, the very essence of British overland engineering.  I have all the gear of course, even the ‘T’ shirts (to say nothing of 5 of the breed parked up around the place ranging from 1953 Series 1’s to Series 3 and 90 TDi), but then again, France is relatively ‘on the map’ and, more significantly, my camping activities were rendered lightweight once I had been offered accomodation at the house of ‘mon cousine’.  So I decided instead to take ‘baby car’ (so Christened by my stateside colleague ! well it would be baby to her !  Although, it has to be noted, I think she actually grew to love the little Ford) a 2005 Ford Fiesta turbo diesel with an engine size of 1600cc.  I’ve had it for two years and it is my daily work and drive about.  It is small but everything I normally need goes into it – it is the ‘van’ version with just two front seats and no back windows, great for camping etc. – it is fuel efficient and then some.  However, even I have been astounded at the increase in mpg achievable by just dropping the speed to 56mph as opposed to the normal 60mph here.  At a constant 2000 revs it returns 75 – 80 miles to the gallon !! Can you believe it, astonishing, but given the old differentiation in diesel prices in France compared to Britain has swung the opposite way – yes folks, diesel in France is now dearer than over here, generally around 1.17 euros per litre ! – it was a welcome discovery.  Suddenly I had a bit more cash to splash….

A French royalist in the ancient Cite of Carcassone.

So the first thing I bought was a sun hat ! This repro felt hat of the Revolution period was acquired at a Medieval festival in the ancient walled Cite of Carcassone. JC tells me it is of the sort that the Royalists wore at that time - presumably why there are so many available on the second hand antiquity market ! Someone must have collected them all up after a day's outing to the local 'Guillotine Fair'. This type is called a 'Chouant' and originated amongst farmers in the Loire valley region.

I arrived at Capestang around midday.  It was seriously hot, seriously ‘cool’ and seriously the time to catch a beer.  What a super little town (maybe its a village, I’m not sure !), the square has the usual bars and grills, boulangerie and ice-cream sellers.

The street on which cous lives is a relatively narrow, seemingly quiet road but it held a dark secret.  It turned out to be the noisiest, busiest street I’ve ever stayed on.  Coupled with the Catholic desire to sound bells everytime the Pastor blows his nose, it was indeed a difficult place to get some sleep, especially once dawn threatened.  Why does anyone need to go to Church at 7.00am for …’s sake, well I guess that’s why !  Another little quirk of French culture that tickles my desire to become a mass murderer is the presence of ‘boy racers’.  Now we all know the type don’t we, spiffed up car with a small engine and a big bore silencer, oh yes and a thumping from within – garage music so I’m informed ! – but the French do it differently – oh naturelle !  They have little spotty teenagers riding around on the slowest yet noisiest kids motorbikes, and when I say noisy, think fast jet noisy ok !  The noise decibel is bad enough but the pitch and sound is excruciating and because they go so slow the noise lingers around for eternity.  I found myself fantasising about wire stretched across the narrow little street to catch and decapitate – in the true French tradition – the urchin who every night around midnight, and every morning around 5, screamed, but at a slow pace, up and down the road outside my open window.

Trompe-l'oeil in Carpestang.

This quite outstanding 'mural' which is typically French - their 'Trompe-l'oeil' - adorns the walls in a little cul-de-sac and is very very difficult to work out. Is it real or....

That apart, the place was idyllic.  The Canal du Midi runs through the north of the place and the small narrow streets have a higgle-de-piggle-dee arrangement that meant in the five days I was there I was never able to find my way back to things I wanted to see again.  Just as well then I never got to walk home the stunningly beautiful waitress in the Bar/Grill which I frequented in the square.  The ‘chef’ of the place (to the uneducated amongst you, he was the boss not the chef …) worked out that I must have played rugby and we talked for long hours about French and Welsh encounters of the past.  He was particularly proud of his signed jersey of the French talisman of the last decade ‘Chaval’ a long haired nutter who would run through a veritable barn door and not get a splinter.

The trompe-l'oeil at night.

At night the painting was even more stunning and so 'Impressionistic'.

These little towns and villages were not of course built with cars and delivery vehicles in mind.  The streets seemed somehow infected by the metal boxes of modern day travel.  It was impossible to walk without having to squeeze past cars and vans which invaded every space.  However, the worst thing, and something which is a serious issue throughout France, presumably because of the ‘egalitarian’ nature of French society, is dog shit ! Oh my my my, it is everywhere.  In Bezier, in Narbonne, on the streets of every town and village, every step places you in sight, smell, danger.  It is the French minefield, dog shit everywhere.  How can ‘Egality’ and ‘Libertee’ have become translated into the right to allow your dog to do it where it wants (the suggestion that the people should pick it up and dispose of it… a French pooper-scooper !! Not in my lifetime).

I know we have a problem here, indeed only recently the local Community Council have been shouting about people allowing their dogs to do it on the village green without clearing it away, but generally it is ‘known’ I think, that if you own a dog you are required to clean up after it.  France has a long way to go to catch up I’m afraid, and unfortunately as a ‘tourist’ destination, it is seen as a real negative.  Sarcosy needs to tackle it, get his alluring pop-singing missus on to it, she wouldn’t want dog shit on her Gucci shoes now would she…

"Now look here little sparrow, there's cats everywhere! "

Another love affair that seems to endure in France is that of Les Chat.  Cats are everywhere – strangely their droppings are not to be seen, dogs take note ! – and very well cared for they seem to be.  This contrasts somewhat with the general state of animal life in France, or so it appears to me.  How far, in Wales anyway, can you drive of a morning, in the countryside without seeing a road kill ?  Every night hundreds, if not thousands, of British wild animals meet their end on the roads.  Not so in France.  In all the miles I saw only 2 dead rabbits and 2 dead fox cubs.  Miles and miles of roads, even in the early morning, are devoid of any signs that animal life exists.  Birds are not plentiful by any means but they are seen, animals dead on roads are practically non existent. Now why should that be ?  Well, undoubtedly the roads are quieter and therefore animals have a better chance of getting across, but statistically the laws of probability would dictate that in 1500 miles more than 4 road kills would have been seen, especially given I was journeying on totally remote rural roads through pays of wooded and open countryside.

It is of course because hunting in France is still very very common.  Countryfolk especially, but also hunters from the towns regualrly scour fields and woods looking for meat for the dinner plate and killing off that which threatens that food source.  Gun laws are different, less stringent, more sensible some would say, and the activity of hunting is generally accepted as a norm of rural life.  Thus it is not that animals don’t get killed on the roads of France, its that they get killed in the countryside.  In fact several men I spoke to at wayside cafe halts bemoaned the fact that there was little left for them to hunt.  Similarly, fishing has practically wiped out river fish, especially the coarse fish so disparagingly thought of here but adored over there for its texture and meaty quality, Pike, Perch, Roach and Eel have been taken out of fresh water ponds and rivers by excessive fishing.

Cat on a hot tin roof ! Each night she would lie on a car roof to glean the last of the warmth.

The Languedoc region is one of the major wine growing areas of France.  It amazes me that so much of the land is taken up, not with food growing, but with the grape.  Miles and miles of vineyards, still a labour intensive activity, and yet, in all my travels I never saw a soul in the fields.  Ok, its not yet grape harvest and there’s not a huge deal to do other than water them occasionally, even so, not one farmer !  But, it was ‘holiday season’.  The Fench do it right, graft all year, ‘open all hours’ could well have been set here, eight ’til late’ is not just for food shops, no, most white collar workers do the same hours.  Hence when August arrives they all just shut the shutters and bugger off.  The little butcher’s shop up the road from the house had a sign saying ‘back around August 28th’ !  Now that’s what I call confidence in the market.  There again, if all your customers have gone away too… Mind you, I find myself wondering where exactly does one go on holiday when you live somewhere like this ?  Its one of life’s imponderables, somewhat like the puzzle as to how the man who drives the snow plough gets to work…..

1920s Citroen

This beautiful old 1920s Citroen was for sale in a local garage. I was well tempted I can tell you, but where would I keep it and, as it has no wipers, how would I drive it in Wales...

I was to meet up with two of my daughters who flew out to join me on this ‘life changing’ sojourn.  They duly arrived via Montpelier and a little hire car called a Twingo – great name don’t you think.  Its Renault’s littlest and unbelievably fuel efficient, so much so it gives you money back after using it ‘cos there’s a tendency to put too much fuel in.  Unlike a beautifully restored Citroen I spied en route.  I love old cars of the open top variety.  Whilst waiting to board the ferry I spied an open top Bentley tourer of similar 1920s vintage, the driver, suitably attired in long leather coat, flying helmet and goggles informed me he was also going to ‘poodle’ and intended going to the tip of  Spain and then possibly on to North Africa, great British eccentricity lives on.

On the other hand, French humour, not at the forefront of the national character, sometimes comes out, this little sign amused me, it says ‘Garage for Rent’ – for a lawn mower ‘petet’ !

Garage for Rent

Lawn Mower garages are quite rare I imagine.

Of course, apart from Wine and Food the other reason to journey way down south is the scenery, oh yes, and the weather !  Sun, heat, warm breeze….. shall I say that again ? Sun, heat…..

I am a suprising sun lover, I think its to do with being an ‘outside’ worker.  Dry Stone wall building is meant to be done in the dry, in the sun, in the heat.  Although there is an increasing disadvantage in the form of skin cancer risk from the increase UV levels.  The area in which I found myself was just perfect.  Almost too hot actually, certainly the sand was not walkable on without flip-flops, as I found to my cost – burned soles of feet are mucho painfull !    The sea on the other hand was strangely bloody freezing ! Not at all the Med one expects.  I thought at first – there being no-one in dipping – that there must have been jelly-fish around.  But, being British, I braved it and just plunged in.  My singing voice became instantly descant and parts of my anatomy became grape-like….

When a body is wholly or partly immersed in water, the volume of water displaced is equal to the volume of the body immersed... Look out on the beach !!

This was the first time I had been in the sea for many a year.  I indulged myself in the pool at the Marriott in Arlington last year.  However, the first time I went to the pool a little mishap occurred.  As I was climbing down the slippy aluminium steps I slipped and crashed into the pool causing something of a tsunami, a little Japanese baby floating in a rubber ring got washed up onto the tiled surround on the other side of the pool much to her mother’s astonishment and indignation !!  This time I only caused some tidal damage to a beach sculpture !

The days of lying around on the beach were complimented by crazy fiesta type evenings in the cities of Narbonne and Bezier, music, wild noisy people, wine and very good food.  I particularly liked the Spanish fiesta at Bezier where all the street cafes had Piaella and Sangria, oh my, luckily I wasn’t driving, the contents of the sangria was somewhat ‘strong’!

Well, enough for ‘part deux’ methinks.  I’ll finish with the cultural elements of my trip in part 3 !  Remember, I was supposed to be doing some research and historical /archaeological investigating too !!  To date a very very ‘Bon Vacance’ !! (and my waistline seems no larger… )

A prochaine …

Pyramid in the Sand

Sand sculptures were all the rage. This one was only slightly affected by my immersion !

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