Wednesday, July 27, 2005

France, Part Two: Wining Roads

This trip had several purposes to it. The first was to reacquaint myself with Montpellier, but equally important was to check out the countryside around it, since I had a car and the weather was good.

Why do that? Because Montpellier is a small enough city that it can't divorce itself from its surroundings. Thus, the agricultural regions and the smaller cities -- Béziers, Sète, Agde, and so on -- influence the atmosphere there. (For instance, it's beginning to appear that I'll have to go to Béziers to record my Fresh Air pieces, because there doesn't seem to be a satellite-uplinked radio studio in Montpellier).

On another level, too, the way the countryside looks has something to do with the way the city looks, and the history of the region isn't restricted to the big cities, since such small places as Agde (the central administration point in the Greek era) and Aigues-Mortes (from which a Crusade was launched before the harbor silted up and left the city miles from the Mediterranean) played a part.

And also because I didn't want to spend the whole time sniffing around the city. Anyway, I was terrified I'd find a dream apartment, and at the moment I'm months away from being able to even consider the move.

At any rate, on Wednesday, having been informed that Béziers was where I'd likely have to record, I figured a roundabout trip there would be fun, and, having read in one of my guidebooks that St.-Guilhem-le-Désert was a cool little Medieval village, I pointed the Smart up there, figuring to descend into Béziers via Clermont-le-Hérault and St-Saturnin, names I knew from the wine labels I'd scoped out.

Nice plan. Getting there was no problem at all: it's extremely well signposted because every imaginable kind of tour bus and package tour heads there. And it's a nice enough place as long as you keep looking up. Because on the mountain overlooking the village, there's the ruins of a castle -- lord knows how they got up there to build it, let alone hauled the tons of stone up there -- and some further outbuildings. Very impressive:

But if you look in the lower half of that photo, you see why I didn't want to spend too much time in St-Guilhem: cutsey honky-tonk. Nearly every building in the village is selling something, and it's not all local handcrafts and food items, either. Something tells me that if you'd informed the Abbott at the 11th century abbey there a hundred years ago that you'd be able to buy a digideroo in his town, he'd have gone and had you exorcised. (You may well have seen part of this abbey, incidentally, since its cloister forms part of the Cloisters, a division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.)

Anyway, after squeezing out a couple of photos, we ran back to the car and got the hell out of Dodge. The wrong way. And when you leave a town in the mountains the wrong way, you kind of have to stay on the road, because there isn't any place to turn around. Thus it was that we drove alongside the gorges of the Hérault through hillsides occasionally planted with vines, and finally reached a scenic viewpoint, where we dutifully stopped to shoot the Hérault and the astonishing rock formations which barely show up in this photo.

Fortunately, not long after that, we hit a main road and were able to drive to St.-Martin-de-Londres (which has nothing to do with London, but, rather, is derived from an Occitan word for otters, I believe) and, whew, lunch. Which was "steack taurine et frites," the important word of which is "taurine," or bull. It was, actually, more like beef-flavored chewing gum than steak. Fortunately, along this road, there was something I really wanted to see (I'd given up on Béziers, because I had to be back in Montpellier at 6 to wave to everyone on the city's webcam).

Cambous is a tiny village, at one end of which was discovered an extensive prehistoric settlement, which has been partially excavated. This discovery was only made in 1967, which seems odd until you try to visit it and take a really severe hike through the woods over a road of very rough pebbles. In fact, the surrounding countryside is filled with rock, which makes you wonder how much it must have changed since these early Languedocians lived there. It didn't help that it was really hot, either, but the kindly British archaeologist manning the ticket booth had bottles of mineral water for sale, and we took full advantage of that, as well as the English translation of the explanatory materials. Pretty primitive stuff all around, but fascinating.

After that, I had two goals in mind: one, to get back to Montpellier in time to wave to everyone and two, to get some wine. It's maddening being surrounded by vines all day and not knowing what the end-product tastes like. After all, the French have that thing about terroir, the taste of the land, and we'd been in the land for six or seven hours. Finally, just outside of Aniane, I saw a name I recognized, offering tastings and sales. I sent the Smart up a really rough road as K loudly voiced doubts as to whether it'd make it, and finally we pulled up outside a modern-looking building which had a sign saying that this was the place. Then there was the other sign: "We're out in the fields, but can be back within two minutes. Just call this number: " Of course neither of us had our cell phones. Hell, I never took mine out of the hotel room.

Now I was obsessed, and a few minutes later, in Aniane proper, I saw a place offering tastings. It was, I now realize, pretty much of a tourist trap, since all of the wines had the names of tourist attractions: St.-Guilhem-le-Désert, Pont du Diable, and others. But hey, there were vines around all these places, and who could blame the farmers for marketing their product? And the St-G wasn't bad, so I bought a couple of bottles. Still, I resolved not to make this mistake again. Surely there were more serious places to do this, but my unfamiliarity with the countryside and the etiquette involved made it a hit-and-miss procedure.

Anyway, I had my wine, I'd had a great drive, and we had to be back to wave to all the folks. We parked the car, dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and climbed the hill into town, and realized we were early, so we wasted some time and then, precisely at 6, stationed ourselves in full view of the webcam and waved like crazy. This was made much more difficult by the fact that a ballet dancer and her boyfriend had set up just to our right and she was doing what looked to me like warmup exercises while boyfriend's boombox blared Cabaret at distortion levels. I've always hated musicals, but this was even worse because of the volume. We waved for five minutes, and then, hot and exhausted, headed back down the hill for some peace and quiet before dinner. (Turns out the webcam is something of a fake. Nobody I know saw us, although several tuned in at the right time. Apparently, what it does is just play a loop of some sort. We may have shown up, but not at 6pm, as advertised. Apologies to all who wasted bandwidth.)

It was at dinner that I made an important discovery about Languedoc's wine. We decided (pretty much without discussing it) that we did not want to climb that hill again, modest as it was, just to hit a good restaurant. Anyway, there was one just across the Boulevard des Arceaux which said it had local food, so we went there. I have no idea if it isn't good, or whether K's request not to have pommes lyonnaise with her beef, but, rather, pommes frites ticked the owner off (or whether the presence of tourists did, for that matter), but the meal was pretty damn undistinguished. The wine, though, was another matter. He had a huge wine-list, scrupulously annotated, so I spent a good deal of time reading it, because it was pretty educational. Not that it gave me a clue what to order, but it divided the Languedoc up nicely and gave me some ideas where to go on my next expedition tomorrow. I asked the owner to recommend something, he curled his lip, and came back with a bottle from the Abbaye de Valmagne, which turns out to be not too far outside of Montpellier. It's one of the oldest continually-producing wineries in the area, and the wine was a masterpiece of balance: Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache (50/40/10%), spicy, dark, fruity, and six Euros a bottle at the wine store up the hill.

The discovery, which I've been amplifying by reading Patrick Moon's Virgile's Vineyard, an entertaining and almost certainly largely fictitious tale of a year in the Languedoc learning about the growing, tasting, and history of the wines there (if you hate Peter Mayle as much as I do, folks, you'll like this book), is that as long as you pay attention to the label, as long as you deal with the AOC (appelation d'origine controllée) varieties, it's hard to go wrong. The Languedoc produces lots and lots of wine, and much of it is sent off to processors for bleinding into cheap crap, since that's all it's good for. But there's an increasing number of serious young (and old) winemakers there who are going for lower yields and better quality, and achieving great results. Distinguishing among the many sub-areas, telling, say, a St. Chinian from a St. Saturnin, is still beyond me, but there are few unaffordable wines in this huge area, and the quality is remarkably high.

I still hadn't seen the shore, as K kept reminding me (she'd made trips to the beach at Sète as a college student), and I still hadn't gotten to Béziers. But there was still time.

Next: Eating rocks in Béziers.

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