The early start from St Pancras meant I stayed in London evernight on Wednesday, in Muswell Hill, with my friend Ann. But even at 7.15 am the traffic was appalling and I didn’t get to the station till after 8. But Eurostar is nothing like an airport journey; you don’t check in as such – just go through security and passport control then wait to hear your train called.
Mine was the one for Disneyland so the terminal was full of excited children. I was pretty excited myself to find coffee and a croissant! There are 49 people on this tour and I am the only singleton, so sat next to our guide Norman on the trains – at least when he sat anywhere.
We changed at Lille, by which time my laptop battery needed re-charging, but you don’t get electric points on a T.G.V. except in first class! It made me feel quite nostalgic for Virgin trains. Thank goodness I had the latest Terry Pratchett with me.
Our hotel in Montpellier is only five minutes’ walk from the station and is very comfortable and ornate, with marble bathrooms etc. Just getting a little faded but I quite like that. The first night I went out and hunted down the one vegetarian restaurant I’d found on the net. It was more of a café really and the waitress, clad in a sari, was English. The food wasn’t Indian though the café was inspired by a pacifist guru.
We were supposed to go to Carcassonne and Narbonne on Friday but Norman had heard a weather forecast that made him decide to switch excursions. So we went to Pézenas and Sète instead. Pézenas had nothing really old enough to interest me from a research point of view but I bought a couple of guidebooks and had coffee sitting outside in the sun.
On to Sète, which I didn’t really see the point of. We were driven up Mont Saint-Clair to see a panoramic view of ... a building site! Sète is really not a pretty place but once we were down in town, there were pleasant restaurants along the canal and I discovered Picpoul de Pinet – a very dry white wine, which was lovely served ice-cold on a warm day. The one thing it does have going for it is the “Cimetière marin” which features in Paul Valéry’s poem, but I didn’t see it.
I had decided to branch out on my own after lunch and take a train to Béziers instead of going back on the coach. Once there, I found my way to the Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire, where 7,000 Bitterrois were massacred on 22nd July 1209, in the course of the sack of Béziers by the Cistercian Abbot Arnaud-Aimery, in which all the citizens were killed indiscriminately and the city burned.
It had an incredible atmosphere, the building having been restored after the roof fell in during the fire, and I found it very moving.
Unlike the trains. I had unwittingly picked a day of rail strikes and there was only one train back to Montpellier, so I got back too late to explore. But it had been worth the detour and delays.
I had an absolutely delicious three-course meal in the Vietnamese restaurant right opposite the hotel and an early night. We set off at 9am today for Narbonne. It is a very handsome city and, though the spectacular medieval cathedral and archbishop’s palace are too late for my purposes – end of rather than beginning of 13th century – I also saw the old palace from the outside and found a plaque in a courtyard dedicated to Viscountess Ermengarde of Narbonne and some troubadours, which made me happy.
As did the bookshop, where I bought a LOT of books and 2 issues of a new magazine about Cathar history. Back on the coach and on to Carcassonne for lunch. It IS over-restored, no doubt, and the double curtain wall was added after the siege in August 1209, but the Cité is still spectacular. I felt nothing in the basilique Saint-Nazaire, except mild outrage at seeing Simon de Montfort’s funeral slab of pink-veined marble near the high altar. (The body had to be moved by his son; the locals just couldn’t stomach its being there, even though he had been given the title of Viscount of Albi, Béziers and Carcassonne).
The real Viscount, my hero Raimon-Roger Trencavel, was bumped off or “died of dysentery” in his own dungeon in November 1209. I bought a very expensive book, in French, about vassalage and lordship in the Languedoc.
Tomorrow we have to put the clocks forward an hour and still meet at 9am – we are going to the Haut-Languedoc to see Norman Foster’s viaduct and then St. Guilhem-le-Desert.
Well, we made it on time and saw the viaduct at Millau – indeed our coach drove across it. The twenty minute film about it at the visitors’ centre was not only atrociously written but managed to leave out the fact that it had been designed by an Englishman!
I did see two pairs of vultures, birds which have been recently introduced into the area.
Much more interesting to me was the afternoon visit to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, which is officially one of the “100 most beautiful villages of France.” Do we have that in the UK? I suppose Shilton might be one.
Anyway St. G-le-D has an 11th century abbey built by the saint who was a 9th century mate of Charlemagne and features in a Chanson de Geste. We saw the Pont du Diable from which he apparently threw Satan into the river. There is not much left of the cloister of this fabulous little abbey because it is in New York!
Yes, the famous Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum in the north of Manhattan, where the unicorn tapestries are housed, are from this very church. I’m very glad to have seen what was left though.
Dinner tonight was at another Thai restaurant with lots of tofu. When I left it was pouring with rain – real flash flood stuff. I ran back to the hotel with my head down under my umbrella and got lost! Very glad to be back in my room and drying out. Typed up what I’d written on the coach and saw a bit of A Room with a View in French. It seems incredibly slow if you don’t know exactly what’s going on!
Monday’s expedition was initially to Nimes, where we had nearly three hours, which was about two hours too long. It might be better on other days but a lot of places were closed and it had a desolate air. Still, I had a coffee and croissant in a croissanterie, which was rather satisfying, though I later saw a briocherie – what a useful suffix!
We skirted Saint-Gilles, which was a bit frustrating since that’s where a lot happens in my book. But it was good to see the landscape round there. Marshes, salt-flats and lots of birds – egrets, herons, swans, ducks and – surprisingly, flamingoes. I’m guessing the last are a recent addition, as is the rice crop.
We did see some of the white horses of the Camargue, though not running wild, and some of the small black bulls they use for “Tauromachie” in the amphitheatre in Nimes. It’s more like the Cretan bull court than the Spanish corrida, since the bulls aren’t killed. The fighters, male and female, have to snatch tokens from between the bulls’ horns.
On to Aigues-Mortes, a port built by Louis lX, the one who became a saint, and who launched two crusades from there (6th and 7th). It’s a perfectly complete late 13th century fortified town, full of souvenir shops and cafés, so like a little Carcossonne, but near the sea.
So this is the last night and the end of my trip. I’m all packed and have to meet our guide at the station at 8am. (we are travelling on the upper deck of the T.G.V. to Lille tomorrow).
So just time to type up today’s output, putting chapter nine to bed – and then me.
I was able to write half of chapter ten on the TGV before my battery ran out and have since finished it, and eleven and am halfway through twelve. So I am now going to be 2 chapters behind on the schedule I had worked out. Never mind; the trip was worth it. Oc, indeed.