Saturday, February 04, 2006

Notes From The Trip

The Cold From Hell is still with me, but I'm enough recovered to know that a straight narrative of the trip would be boring to just about every one of you, so I'm going to hit some highlights, and think about putting some energy into getting pix onto Flickr.


I pulled into Nimes station at 2:24 pm, right on time, and almost immediately, a young woman walked up to me and asked if I were me. I'd just met Jacqui, the third member of the Languedoc Sun team. Laurence was also somewhere on the platform looking for me. It was, apparently, a matter of some urgency: a story about the launch of the magazine was going to appear in the local paper, Midi Libre, and the photographer didn't have much time to snap a shot of the three of us. Snap, however, he did, and a picture of us admiring the new arrival appeared on p. 3 of the Nimes edition the next day.

This led me to think nice thoughts about the French press, thoughts which evaporated the next day when Laurence told me that the regional news box that appeared in all the other editions had run a story about the magazine's launch, with her name, a couple of sentences of quotes from her, but not the name of the magazine. Presumably Midi Libre has editors, but one has to wonder what they do.


My first assignment, after checking into the hotel, was to head to the Nimes Tourist Office to determine when they opened the next morning, and when the one in Alès did. Laurence wanted to get the earliest possible start in the morning to distribute the magazines, since we were going to have to hit as many towns as we could. This was limited only by the fact that my hotel didn't serve breakfast until 7:30, and I can't work until I've had coffee.

After talking to the tourist lady, I was free to wander until I got picked up for dinner at Jacqui's later, so, the weather being nice considering it was the end of January, I went for a walk. Actually, I just walked down the street and up the stairs of the Maison Carrée, the Greek temple. It's free to get in, although it doesn't have much in the way of displays, just some random Roman sculpture from other sites in Nimes, usually uncovered when someone was starting a building project. Still, the fact that it's survived all it has is amazing. I'm still wondering about deep scars close to the bottom of the columns, which look like they may have been inflicted by a chain. Not that there was any information about this inside: from inspecting the map I got in the tourist office later, I realized that Nimes doesn't have a clue how to sell itself. Nothing whatever is marked, with even the simplest sign. Here's the cathedral. How old is it? No idea. Old. ("Medieval," says the Rough Guide, while the Hachette -- out of print for decades and still the best -- says 11th Century facade on a 19th Century rebulding). A pile of stones near my hotel is definitely Roman -- why else would they have put that silly reproduction of the statue of Julius Caesar there? -- but I have no idea what it is, although all my references dutifully note the Protestant temple next to it, which is apparently filled with lots of Roman findings. Anyone?

The real big deal of the Roman past, though, is the Arènes, the arena, which holds 6-7000 people for the ferias, the twice-yearly bullfights which attract people from all over. They even run the bulls like they do in Pamplona, and a
German photographer apparently met her death trying to photograph them a couple of years back. But a big old Roman arena is quite the thing to have sitting a couple of blocks from the train station.


The first stop the next day was going to be Alès, which is Laurence's home town, but we stopped 11 km outside of town to deliver some magazines to the tourist office in Vézénobres, a Romanesque village clinging to a hillside which apparently has a number of British residents. Coulda fooled me: the only humans we saw the whole time were in the tourist office. One thing, though: they're in shape. The way into town from the parking lot was pretty much straight up and down.

Alès, when we got there, looked like a Frenchified New Jersey, which figures because it was a clothmaking city which turned into a coal-mining one. I didn't see a whole lot of history, since most of the old buildings were burned down long ago (this whole area has always been Protestant, which has pissed off the Church for centuries), but it's the place to base yourself for sorties into the Cévennes Nature Park, and anyway, they bought our back page. We might have spent too much time there, but I can't begrudge Laurence her local-girl-makes-good moment. We also hit the School of Mines, where Jacqui's companion Nicolas went to school -- it's apparently France's top engineering college. (He, incidentally, started a company that inspects buildings for safety, and it's flourishing. Since he's not much over 30, if that, I had positive proof that I wasn't in Germany any more: an actual entrepreneur who took his education and put it to use and is now making money with it! He'd be 40 in Germany before he'd even dare to think of such a thing, and then he'd blow it off because, well, it's so much easier to just sign on with an existing company).

Next stop was Uzès, childhood home of Racine and André Gide, center of gastronomy (especially during truffle season), and magnet for British people wanting to buy houses. There, we got interviewed yet again, for the Alès Républicain, although the reporter's note taking seemed to be more concerned with good penmanship than anything else. The guy who ran the cafe where the interview took place, called Terroir, turned out to be Swedish, just the kind of English-speaking expat I love to find, because he's not British or American, yet told us that he considers English pretty much his first language. If only I could have convinced the Berlin folks that such critters existed when I was trying to raise money for my magazine...

The idea was to hit the Pont du Gard on the way home, but it didn't happen because time was tight. Too bad: I love crossing off UNESCO World Heritage sites from the list.


The next day was largely spent in Montpeller distributing magazines, both in the city and in a language school based in what appeared to be a fortified farmhouse out by the airport (fortifications from another era, of course) and at the airport itself. I picked up a timetable and was happy to discover that not only can I fly pretty much straight to New York from there, but also to Copenhagen, Prague, and Fez. Never been to Fez, but I have friends in the other two. I also stopped by my favorite wine shop, La Maison des Vins et Produits du Terroir, for some research materials. The place is astonishing, a virtual museum of what's made in the region. The guys there know their stuff, too.


Saturday was launch-party day at Laurence and Robin's place -- Robin is her British husband -- with most of the writers and other folks in attendance, although at least one person was unable to attend because the previous evening, an almost unprecedented thing had happened: in the higher regions, around Alès, it had snowed. Just like in Texas -- which this whole part of the world definitely feels and looks like -- people became utterly unhinged.

And, as I mentioned, the next day we drove down to Pézenas, where Molière apparently liked to hang out. The rain was brutal, and so were the winds, and I've vowed to come back and look at this place again. One thing I noticed right off: small free-standing enamel shields with the landmarks described on them. Seems to me Nimes could do with a couple of those. After that, a small village, Gabian, where local expats have a book sale on the last Sunday of each month, and then back to Nimes.


My explorations into the local cuisine yielded some interesting results. One night I went to a restaurant Jacqui had recommended, Nicolas, right by my hotel. I was the only customer, but Mama came over and took my order and eventually another couple walked in and ordered. It was an odd meal: it started out with mussels with a strange white sauce on them, very subtle, so much so that I couldn't even begin to tell you what it was. After that was an aïoli, fish and steamed vegetables and a pot of the famous garlic mayonnaise. The portion was rather scant, but it was okay. I don't eat dessert, so I got some cheese, which was the beginning of my discovery that not all Roqueforts are created equal -- or, I should say, alike. This one had a real citrusy tang to it -- odd, but not offputting. The wine was a local red, Costières de Nimes, rough but okay.

Saturday I walked around in the rain some until I found what appeared to be an okay place run by a youngish pair. He was quite amusing, especially after he got a call that a party of nine was coming and he tried to figure out how to rearrange the tables to seat nine. I could have told him, but it was more fun watching him try and fail. I started with what was supposed to be a crayfish terrine, but sure didn't seem like one. It was surrounded by a sauce that was mostly ketchup. After that came a slice of beef -- or taurine -- that was amazingly thin and small, with a little pot of nondescript marchand du vin sauce and frozen french fries. Sigh. (I think taurine, or bull, is actually a French code-word for "tough.") The wine, another Costières de Gard, was fine, though.

Sunday, I went and found the most overdecorated restaurant in France, and I'm thinking next time I'll hit the place across the street, which wasn't doing a fraction of the business, although who knows, they might have had a kitchen like the place I'd eaten the night before. At any rate, unlike Montpellier, Nimes has no shortage of places to dine on a Sunday night, which is encouraging, and this place served me an anchoiade, which was a plate of raw vegetables with a pot of some kind of anchovy-and-olive-oil concoction, a great appetizer, followed by the best thing I had the whole trip: seiches, which are little cuttlefish that are mostly body with very little tentacles, in a rouille. Now, if you've had bouillabaisse or the kind of fish soup they do in Sète, you're familiar with one kind of rouille, a mayonnaise with lots of garlic and red pepper in it. This one was different: it was bright yellow, and redolent of saffron. If your French is good enough, you might look at this recipe, making sure to click the link for rouille for more details, and you might also want to look at this one for some useful tips. The dish was served in a casserole dish with a layer of steamed potatoes under the seiches, the whole thing covered with the yellow sauce. It was magnificent.

One reason I ordered seiches instead of the other temptation, the dried-codfish-and-potato morue, was that I'd been at the market that morning. I really shouldn't do this to myself, but I can't resist. I was very careful to notice that the prices were often astronomical -- I saw one cut of beef that was going for €36 a kilo, or close to twenty bucks a pound. But it was still a great demonstration of the variety of local produce, even in the middle of the winter, and one thing that was going strong was the category the French call coquillages, which basically covers shellfish. Seiches were on display, and looking good. I also stopped by a baked-goods counter and bought a fougasse, a pate pastry, and another pastry. Fougasse is a local thing, flaky pastry with tiny bits of (very peppery, in this case) bacon cooked into it ("and the rest is secret," says Laurence). My only other one had been in Montpellier last January, at 4pm, which explained the odd look I got from the lady selling it and the intense resistance it put up to my attempts to eat it. Fougasse is for breakfast. Not sure about the little pate pastry, but it was great, and the other one, same basic shape and size, was so soaked in eau-de-vie that I was a little disoriented after I ate it. There was more fougasse, though, so I downed it. Next thing is to figure out why so many fougasses are in the shape of the letter A.

Not at all French, but a great discovery, was the bacon cheeseburger at Auntie Lou's British restaurant in Montpellier, down a side-street I'd never seen before. Lou herself is a panic, and the cheeseburger would be perfect if she could just find buns which didn't dissolve into mush less than half-way through eating the burger -- just like they do here in Berlin. I don't get it: the French and the Germans, two great bread-baking cultures, and they can't make hamburger buns! How hard can it be?

Oh, and one more meal: in Uzès, we stopped in a little cafe for lunch, and I ordered a fine cold-weather dish, a tartiflette. If you can get the cheese, I recommend it highly. I doubt I left a molecule on the plate.


That's it for this trip. I'm going to plunge head-first into work until mid-week, because this is the spurt of activity which, I hope, will provide the initial funds for my return to Montpellier in late March and early April, at which point, if the money is there, I'll be looking for apartments.


Daniel Rubin said...

bacon cheeseburger?

Ed Ward said...

Um, yes. A cheeseburger with bacon on it. I believe in your country you enjoy such things. I know for a fact that I live in a country where all hamburgers are made from pre-frozen hockey pucks. At least Lou makes her own patties.