Thursday, July 28, 2005

France, Part Three: Surf 'n' Turf

I still had to see Béziers, and I still wanted to buy wine. K wanted to relive her youth on the beach somewhere. The map said it was all possible, so the next morning we headed off to Sète, the harbor that had taken over from Montpellier after Montpellier's had silted up.

It's not a long drive at all, and before long we were parked and wandering around the streets of what was obviously a very popular vacation destination. It was weird to feel all the memories of family vacations on the Jersey shore and Cape Cod arising again, but dang if the souvenirs they sell in Sète aren't pretty much exactly the same as the ones they sold there back then. As we made our way from the actual working port area where we'd parked to the harborside strip of restaurants, a couple of huge fishing boats came in. If the signs on a port-side restaurant were to be believed ("Fresh tuna, 11am on"), they were tuna boats. That would be some fresh fish, but 11 was a ways off.

We made it to the rock wall at one end of town, where tiny scraps of beach have taken hold, and K scrambled down the rocks to dip her feet in the Mediterranean. "Okay," she announced, "that's good enough for now. But we're coming back." I agreed: from what I'd seen on the restaurant strip, I was going to have to eat dinner here. After all, fish and shellfish just don't exist in Berlin.

Back in the car, we headed down the long strip of sand between Sète and Agde -- 20km or so of practically deserted sand, although it was a nice hot day and perfect beach weather, or so I'd have thought. But as we got closer to Agde, I saw how it worked. There, the strip widens some, and there are commercial campgrounds, with cabins. And there were all the people, on the beach. A five-minute walk could have bought them some privacy, but I guess that's not how it works for them.

From Agde, it was another short drive to Béziers, and as we came into town, I noted a large, rounded, red-brick building that looked familiar, not that I'd ever seen it before. But I had seen pictures of bullfight arenas before, and that's what it was: this is an area of France where bullfighting happens, and Nimes is another center of the sport. Maybe this was the source of yesterday's lunch.

We passed a large shady park with lots of cafes on it and decided to eat lunch there. I followed signs to parking by the city's market hall and promptly got lost, since a lot of them had evidently been pulled out for the road construction, which was everywhere. Miraculously, I found the parking lot, which was underground, and parked. We emerged in a cathedral square I hadn't seen on the way in, set off walking, and promptly got lost. The thing is, Béziers isn't really big enough to get terribly lost in, although the heat didn't help much, and sooner or later, we found the square, sat down in a cafe, and ordered lunch. I got what they called a foccacia, which was more like a flour tortilla strewn with salad. It was good -- at least for a while. But something hard hit one of my teeth, and then more and more. I wound up spitting out a mouthful of dirt and rocks, the largest of which rolled off the table onto the ground. K insisted they'd heard us speaking English and assumed we were American and had done it on purpose, but given that I have yet to find a German who can tell a British accent from an American one, I really doubted it. The waiter came over and asked if things were okay, and I said "You really should wash the lettuce before you serve it." He went white and disappeared, then came back offering drinks on the house and, of course, no payment for the so-called foccacia. I declined the drinks and we paid and left. That's just too much terroir for me.

It was only about 1:30, so I checked the map and saw a noted wine town not far away: St. Chinian. Okay, that was the next destination; I was determined to get a tasting. And sure enough, along the road were big signs announcing a tasting room with "produits du terroir" for sale as well. The car wound up and up, into the hills, and both sides of the road had vineyards with signs depicting the labels of the wines the grapes would wind up in. Before long, the views were astonishing: lush valleys below, craggy mountains above. And just before the mountains started, here came St. Chinian.

As we entered the town, one of the first buildings we saw announced that it was a cave cooperative, a place where several winemakers sold their wares. The yellow type on brown background was just the same as the signs we'd been seeing, so I pulled the car up in front of it, only to find it closed. But a sign pointed to the left and said that the operation had moved. The new building looked like a school, hardly a touristy place, and there were only a few cars there, which likely belonged to people working within. I had my doubts, but we parked by the bottling plant (silent today, but then, it wasn't harvest time) and walked in. Well, there were bottles, there were huge stainless-steel tanks offering lesser wines (bring your own container), and there was a chirpy young woman who asked if I wanted a dégustation. "Red, white, or rosé?" she asked, and of course I chose red.

I say "of course," but this is also a part of the world which makes really creditable rosés. For summertime drinking, they have the authority of the reds, but the quaffability of the whites, and I'm quite interested in furthering my knowledge of them. However, my aim was to find some stuff to bring home, so red it was. She laid out six different bottles, and I tasted. One was too perfume-y for my taste, one was just flat, but the other four proved to be excellent to great: Chateau Villepassans, which is oaked (not usual for the area); Fleuron de France, a "cuvée de prestige," whatever that means; Chateau Belleville-Gabelas; and Domaine de Sante-Foi, which I remember as the best. So I got two of each, at a damage of between 3 and 6.70 Euros per bottle. I was astonished at how cheap it was.

I was also astonished once we reached the other endof St. Chinian: the place that had advertised on the road turned out to be over there! So we parked and went in, and it was a total tourist trap: half the number of wines as we'd just seen, at twice the price, and plenty of tourist bric-a-brac to jack up the take per visitor. We didn't even stay for a tasting.

Instead, we started really climbing, through something I see on the map as the Défile de l'Ilouvre, a snaky mountain pass, to the town of St. Pons de Thomières. There, after a slight wrong turn, we headed towards the town of Olargues. Although there are vineyards all through this area, it's all included in the Regional Natural Park of Upper Languedoc, which explains, perhaps, why so much natural beauty continues to exist. The local river, the Orb, is a canoeists' mecca, which means you occasionally have to contend with small trucks loaded with a dozen canoes on a trailer lurching around a mountain curve (a Smart is no competition for one of these, I tell you), but there really didn't seem to be many tourists around.

I actually hadn't intended to stop in Olargues, but the sight of the 13th century bridge connecting the main road with the town was enough for me to want to make the small detour. It really does look like it's from another world:

We parked pretty much where I took this picture, and walked up into the outskirts of the village. There was a little grocery store there, bulging with regional produce, and K bought a bunch of peaches and a small wedge of Cantal cheese. I was hot to go up into the village, but she said she'd just sit in the shade and eat peaches til I got back. So I scrambled up the staircase into the main part of the village and was greeted by an almost untouched medieval village, far more charming -- and far more deserted -- than St. G had been.

It was, however, getting late, and K still had to get her swim in. A few miles past Olargues, a D-road (as in most European countries, the roads are classifed A, B, C, D in order of hwo suited they are for traffic) looked like it would shoot us down to Béziers, after which it would be a short shot over to that beach, which, since it was getting on to 6, would almost certainly be deserted. So we rocketed past more vineyards and farms and pretty soon rolled past Béziers, Agde, and onto the beach.

Now, I hadn't brought a bathing suit, and there's a reason for that: I'm not much on swimming. K thought I was certifiable, but I just sat on a towel and read an International Herald Tribune I'd bought earlier in Sète while she frolicked in the waves and then wandered down the beach picking up shells, after which she lay down and caught some of the vanishing rays, and pronounced herself happy. Which was the point, no?

Then we shook the sand out of everything -- or almost everything -- and drove on to dinner, which was at one of those harbor-side restaurants, and consisted of their dégustation des coquillages, or mixed shellfish raw platter, although the crab and the lobsters were cooked. K, like most Berliners, had never tasted lobster, and pronounced it most edible. I, on the other hand, yearned for the big Maine ones my eccentric aunt used to catch after she and her husband retired up there. But it was good to have oysters, remind myself that cockles have a wonderful nutty taste, and slurp down a couple of clams, dozens of mussels, and a small shoal of shrimp. The whole thing was served on the most ridiculous toy fishing boat imaginable: yes, we were in a tourist town, and no, they weren't going to let us forget it. That's okay: it was so good I could forgive them.

Next: Montpellier itself.

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