Wandering France’s wine country of Languedoc-Roussillon
After a week of biking around Toulouse, we rented a small car and set out for the small town of Olonzac in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Between the medieval walled hilltop city of Carcassone and Narbonne, a nice small city with a very rich history as a trading port in earlier times, Olonzac was very quaint and charming. Neighborhood friends had come here to spend 3 months a few years ago having a cultural French immersion experience and heartily recommended the town to us as home base for Southwestern France.
We stayed Chez Lulu in a holiday rental “gite” which was very comfortable and cost around $54 a night. If we ever got a bit lost on the way home through the small meandering streets, we could always ask directions for la Mairie, the Town Hall, as we were right beside it on a small square. Chez Lulu is below on the right.
It seems there has been an exodus of people moving out from the old center of small towns. The young people move off for education or opportunities and many others apparently are happy to move out to newer homes built on the outskirts. The center was very quiet with many homes completely shuttered up but it’s still big enough to have 2 boulangeries and a butcher in spite of the larger supermarket nearby.
There is a big contingent of English people living in this area but from what we heard and observed, for the most part they are keen to assimilate, learn French and share in the village life and not keep themselves to themselves. Well done, les anglais! Bravo, les ros bifs!
Tuesday in Olonzac is a big market day and the market winds through the streets. People flood in from all the small surrounding villages to do their shopping. After a busy marketing morning, they all gather at the Café de La Poste, a big brasserie. As they do not serve any food, we were quite welcome to buy our own croissants or baguettes from across the street at the boulangerie and then come to la Poste for coffee which we made a point to do at least once every day. A very nice spot to call our local spot for coffee or a sip of something stronger later in the day. When the sun shone, the outdoor seating was busting at the seams and when it was snotty, we all huddled inside taking in rugby on a big screen.
Some local characters seemed to live in the brasserie all day long, sipping back their coffees, and/or small carafe of red or local rose wines, treating La Poste like their own from sitting room really. Very sociable.
The week we were here, the weather was very chilly so we let it direct our exploring. On nicer days, we rented bikes and pedaled off to nearby Homps which has a pretty canal bridge, very busy with canal boats. A large wine factory on the route with its tall smoke stack was a good landmark and quite photogenic.
Another day we set off for Azille which was not too far but with a heavy wind against us and a steady uphill climb, our trip there took about an hour as we stopped to look about, catch our breath or slog through very squishy slippery mud on the footpath beside the canal. Luckily neither of us slipped into the soft chocolaty mud… which would have been quite a mess!! We came across a large team actually removing these majestic old tress along the canal, as they are all to be destroyed because of a blight. Very sad and it will be many years until whatever they are replaced with provide much shade along the canal.
Reaching Azille, we found that there was really nowhere we could stop for a littler snack for lunch at all. Man, when small towns shut their shutters, they are really shut. Yet again, we were thankful that I always pack along a small bag of peanuts “just in case” and we shared them for lunch as we fortified ourselves with nice small French coffees before heading home.
Once we turned towards home, honestly we barely pedaled at all! With the wind on our backs and the hill slope in our favour, we just coasted gently almost all the way home. Smashing!
On our final morning we biked over to Homps again but the weather was turning stinky so we cancelled plans to continue further. We took a detour to return home across the vineyards as we could see Olonzac’s sharp pointed church steeple across the fields. We kept carefully to the little tractor track of red dirt road and made our way windingly across the vineyards hoping we would not reach an utter dead end and have to turn back. With luck and some perseverance, we had a lovely ramble across these fields. Happily no farmer sent out barking dogs to drive us off his fields and this cross-country ramble was one of the highlights of our trip. We even stopped and pulled out our small sketching kits and made a stab at capturing the scenery. With warmer weather and less wind we would have enjoyed more exploring by bike, but it was record-breakingly cold. Nearby Carcassone in fact had several inches of snow and sleet which stayed on the ground for a few days! Luckily we missed that but merchants complained that the chill did put a damper on holiday visitors to the town.
The picturesque hill top town of Minerve was another nice day trip. It is a tiny place surrounded by a natural gorge. The Cathars thought it was a good strategic place to build a fortified town… until some attackers cut off their water supply and eventually overtook the town and put them all to death. This area was the center of the Cathar religion, a humble order which the Pope decided was heretical and eventually was completely exterminated in the 13th century.
Nearby Narbonne was a lovely small city with an extremely lovely small museum of arts. Every single piece was a stunner, remarkably well displayed and lit. A real gem of a museum from the tiniest sugar dish to the largest ornate carved, painted and gilded alterpieces. They had an exceptional collection of Orientalism. Breathtaking! I had no idea it was there and was thrilled to have been able to visit with these lovely pieces. It was nice to see some old friends and make new ones with this group of artists.
Roger Bezombes was a new one to me, wonderful!!! I will definitely look some of these up and read more about this period.
We set our one Sunday lunch as a goal to enjoy a unique French cuisine experience and rambled off by car to find a nice restaurant. We settled on Restaurant Auberge De St Martin in Beaufort and gave them our reservation and continued around the pretty little town until the lunch hour arrived.
We should have read the menu more carefully! The food was very good, well cooked and beautifully presented, and really did satisfy our desire to have a unique French experience as we can both say we will NEVER EAT that dish again!! The starter was a very nice slice or rabbit terrine. I’m not a big pate fan but this was very nice, not fatty. The choice was this or a salad of tete du veau, a veal’s head salad. Yikes. No thanks, I prefer my food not to be looking at me, thanks.
The main dish arrived. The choices were something that sounded vaguely like a haggis which we have enjoyed before, and a tiny bird of some type, maybe guinea fowl. We went with the haggis thingme.
I’m sure it was excellently prepared but it was NOT to our liking. I will refrain from sharing the fairly revolting details (some kind of boiled pigs feet wrapped in a membrane…) but I left half of mine and gobbled the vegetable surroundings and Dennis valiantly made his way through his in the name of adventure. If you image being served the great local delicacy of sheep’s eyeballs in some sheik’s tent in the desert, you get the picture. We WOULD go back to eat at this very nice restaurant BUT would read the daily offerings more carefully next time. This reminds me of my adventurous grandmother who went around the world with some college girl friends way back when. Being adventurous, they would often order the first thing on the menu that they couldn’t understand! It’s a gamble but, really if you want to only eat things you already know, maybe you should just stay home.
Enjoying mussels steamed with local white wine…
With the weather keeping us closer to home, we got though a bit of everything in our week there. We pulled out our little sketching kits and did a little sketching in the Café de la Poste and on our ramble across the vineyards, we read our books, played cards, snuggled(etc) to keep warm, road our bikes, studied Dennis’s new camera and discovered some fun new types of settings… and enjoyed cooking for ourselves at home. Dennis tried unsuccessfully to light the small wood stove in the kitchen but after filling the room with stinky smoke, we just had to give up.
Olonzac makes a great base for certainly a week or more of exploring. With many interesting cities and villages to visit in the area, it’s a good base camp and Lucy from Chez Lulu was a great host with several gites to pick from. Don’t miss a visit to Carcassonne itself. We stayed there on our last trip through a few years ago when we wandered through the Dordogne up to Brittany and Normandy. The Dordogne is one of my favorite areas but this Languedoc-Roussillon area was very nice too and great for visiting the wineries and tasting the local wines. A hard job but some one has to do it.