Coquille

Better late than never, isn’t that the phrase? This post has been in the works and the blog on hold since November at which time the career/life balance got the best of me, when the scales tilted towards more career than exploration. In fact, they have been resting, one-sidedly on the floor ever since. It is time to remedy that. Thank you for your patience and sticking with me on this journey of adventure!

The Grand Canal of France’s Little Venice

Since moving to Europe I have mostly traveled and adventured alone. There are drawbacks to solo-adventuring, but, at the same time, the advantages are many. For example, when I adventure alone I can spend an hour taking photographs of butterflies or a single flower if I wish, whereas had I dragged him along, the Frenchman would have drained his phone battery out of game-playing boredom while he not-so-patiently waited for me to finish.

My favorite part of solo adventuring is the lunches. In the small French towns I love to arrive around lunchtime, locate the main square, preferably waterside, and read through all of the menus before deciding on a restaurant. I look for a menu that is local and features regional specialties, a good price (10 euros or less), and all three courses. The best solo lunch that I have treated myself to so far was at Le Grand Bleu in the seaside town of Sete in southern France.

There, I dined on a first course of Tielle Setoise, an octopus and tomato tarte, a second course of loup or seabass, and a dessert of my favorite food in France (after the cheese and wine, bien sur): Ile Flottant. As I sat alone, I memorized the menu, which contained various Mediterranean fish names and chatted with the gentleman sitting next to me about huitres or oysters, a subject on which he had many opinions. I listened and smiled with the Romani street musicians set up a band across the street from the restaurant terrace and, in my contentment, even gave them the only spare change I have ever given a street performer. In Sete, on the terrace of Le Grand Bleu, life was wonderful.

Tielle Setoise at Le Grand Bleu
Tielle Setoise at Le Grand Bleu

Outside the terrace, it was cold and overcast, not at all the ideal weather for visiting the South of France’s “little Venice,” as the guidebooks tell me it is called though I can hardly imagine the locals, mainly sea-roughened fishermen, calling it that with a straight face. Sete is a town of causeways and canals, a true port town, existing, it seems on fishing and marine activities.

The fishermen yell and holler, and the seagulls follow the boats into the harbor in a large flock, dipping and screeching as though they will tear the boat apart in their mad search for the fishy-deliciousness it carries. And, on the way out to the sea, somewhere in between the Mediterranean and the end of a river lie Sete’s famous coquille farms.

Seagulls mob a trawler on its way back to port
Seagulls mob a trawler on its way back to port
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Colorful boat-mooring rope in Sete, France
An old boat, the San Joseph, sits quietly in the Grand Canal

After my lunch, I wandered around the grey city, wondering what to do until the return bus came in the late afternoon. The guidebook suggested climbing the mountain that overlooks the town for a view of the sea. But, as I gazed up at the viewing point with a belly full of poisson and a poor choice of footwear, that interested me little. Instead, I chose to walk along one of the canals where I happened upon a gaggle of people climbing aboard a neon-yellow boat. Without much else to do, I, too, climbed aboard, for the unknown boat adventure.

As it turned out, the boat was headed out to view the coquille farms. The visit was to last approximately two hours and I gladly sat down with my full belly and wrapped my scarf tightly around me as we headed out to the sea. (The boyscout rule may be to always be prepared, but the French lady rule is that if you have a scarf you always will be.)

The coquille beds poke up from the water in neat little rows of wooden platforms.  Through them cut roads and pathways for the farming boats. The beds are reminiscent of a garden trestle, with only the top of the structure visible above the water. Hanging down from the trestle is the garden where thousands of shellfish “flowers” grow before they are ready to be harvested for consumption at restaurants such as Le Grand Blue on coquillage platters across France.

A trellis for coquille farming
A trellis for coquille farming in the sea near Sete, France

As we motored along through the streets of the farm beds, the guide motioned half of us to go below the deck as the captain slowed the boat. We sat, noses pressed to the glass, watching the green waters in front of us. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the thousands of long strings of shellfish came into view, the depth of their artificial sea homes unknown. Later, back on the deck, the captain taught us about oyster farming, making jokes at my expense about the bad interactions of alcohol and oyster, jabs, which, I admit, were a bit lost on me as the fun allergist has told me that oysters may be my death.

Thousands of shellfish grow  in coquille farms the murky waters near Sete
Thousands of shellfish grow in coquille farms the murky waters near Sete, France

Back at shore, I debated eating another Tielle Setoise before deciding on some biscuits from an adorable canal-bordering shop. Now, six months later, the biscuit tin is still with us, holding all of our electronics, chargers, converters, and more converters, reminding me always of my little afternoon of delicious food and shellfish in the wind.

“Shy is the oyster. Fervent is the claim. Peaceful is the ocean floor rocked by the sands of time.”
– Bradley Chicho, poet

Devil’s Bridge

It is midnight, and my husband is snoring (very) loudly beside me. I have tucked him into bed with an eye mask and ear plugs, and I try to type as loudly as I can. The laptop screen is fully lit up, and the table light is on. We are practicing for next week when we move to the second stop in our explorations (a/k/a studies for the Frenchman.) In Montpellier, we have had a spacious apartment with a bedroom, separate bathroom and toilet, kitchen, and living room. In Toulouse we likely will be living in a studio apartment the size of our current bedroom, or roughly 24 sq meters, and that is the large option. The other option is 15 sq meters, or a little more than 150 sq feet, a size not even considered legal for living in many U.S. cities. We measured out the space today, the Frenchman lying on the floor. “So, it’ll be about one and a half of me wide,” he exclaimed from where he lay. “You were the one that wanted to live in Europe, Jess!” he reminded me. Worried is the emotion that comes to mind. I, too, am going to need earplugs, ones made for jet engine workers.

Though our apartment life in Montpellier has not been bliss (broken lights, lack of blankets, a nonworking oven, broken shower head, leaking hot water heater, and a cockroach infestation) it all seems quite preferable to the thought of living in a bedroom. Truthfully, I am sad to be leaving Montpellier next week. Our month here has flown by, and there is still so much left to explore.

We have been working our way through the Michelin Green Guide for the region – Le Guide Vert Langeudoc Roussillon. In addition to praising the apartment’s size, it has a sizable library as well full of French novels and books about the area. The Green Guide is the best of the library finds.

It points out the best sites in the area, categorizing them as Worth the Trip, Merits a Detour, Interesting, and Another Site Described in the Guide. In our department, Herault, we have the following points of interest:

  • Worth the Trip: Clamouse, Les Demoiselles, and Cirque de Navacelles (right on the border)
  • Merits a Detour: Montpellier, Pic St-Loup, Cirque de Moureze, Pezenas, Oppidum d’Enserune, and St-Guilhem-le-Desert

St-Guilhem-le-Desert is also listed as one of the Herault department’s most beautiful villages <<Les Plus Belles Villages de France>> together with Minerve and Olargues. So far we have explored Clamouse, Cirque de Navacelles, Montpellier, and St-Gilhem-le-Desert (Well, we tried to explore St-Guilhem-le-Desert); and I will be attempting to navigate to Les Demoiselles and Olargues before we leave.

Beautiful and village are terms that form some of the central themes of my explorations, so armed with my Green Guide, I drug the Frenchman and his classmates on a supposed trip to St-Guilhem-le-Desert our first weekend in town, only we did not quite  make it to the village.

St-Guilhem-le-Desert really should be separated into three distinct sites in any traveler’s agenda: Clamouse, Pont du Diable and St-Guilhem-le-Desert. Siren-like (or perhaps devil-like) and stunning should be used to describe the neon green waters of the Herault river running underneath the Pont du Diable or Bridge of the Devil.

Neon green lake as seen from the Pont du Diable
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Looking back on the Herault River from the Pont du Diable at the vehicular bridge and aquaduct

The Pont is the first point of interest in the area that one comes to. Between it and the village of St-Guilhem-le-Desert, located 4Km north, is Clamouse. The waters of the Herault River captured us and drew us in, and, as we lingered by the shore, swam until we lost feeling in our fingers, and drank our river-chilled wine we forgot about the village . . . and the very few return buses to Montpellier. (The buses seem to be both a facilitator and hinderance to full exploration as only one or two buses run the full line lengths to or from Montpellier to the sites of exploration each day, typically limiting a day trip to 5 – 6 hours of exploration.)

Assessing the chilly water before a swim with the Pont du Diable in the background
Assessing the chilly water before a swim with the Pont du Diable in the background

The Pont is one of three bridges along its particular section of the Herault Gorge and is the southern most. Built in the 11th century, it provided a means of traversing the river for the monks living at Aniane and St-Guilhem-le-Desert. It now is limited to foot traffic, and a newer bridge has been built above it for automobiles. Above it still is an aqueduct.

Later this week I plan to return and, resisting the draw of the water, take the bus all the way to the village. I may even make like a monk and hike part of the monastery trail. Only seven days of exploring Montpellier and having the option of either a bed or a couch for sitting remain!

Patrimoine

Last winter, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend nearly three weeks in France during the winter holidays. The only thing on my tourist list – aside from eating as many macaroons at Ladurée as I could convince the Frenchman we could afford – was to tour the catacombs.

In the end, I did not get to tour the catacombs, but I did become obsessed with researching the world hidden beneath Paris – secret metro stations and the world of the catacombs outside of the official tour, a world of darkness patrolled by a catacomb police, on the lookout for people who descend below the city to explore or even hold secret film festivals. The idea of forbidden, and ancient, and slightly dangerous is one that I find quite alluring though I am quite too scared to actually run a metro line myself; the dangers and the illegality of the whole thing are prohibitive.

Once a year on a weekend in September, France opens up all of the otherwise shut off historic places (though not the catacombs, sadly) for free exploration by the public who is invited to visit private mansions, climb up towers, and carefully explore archeological sites. The generally-open sites such as churches and museums are also opened up free of charge and hold special guided tours and concerts and other activities.

This year, these national heritage days or <<Les Journées du Patrimoine>> were last weekend, September 14 and 15. Unfortunately, we did not find out about the weekend until Saturday evening by which time the tickets for Montpellier’s most alluring and closed-to-the-public attraction, the Jewish bathhouse or <<Milkvé>>, were all given out for the following day. We contented ourselves instead with going down below one of the city’s main public squares into the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables and high above it into the belfry of its grandest cathedral, Saint-Pierre. Both the crypt and the bell tower are generally closed to the public, thereby satisfying my desire for exploration into the generally forbidden.

Ossuary in the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables
Ossuary in the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables

First, we went down into the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables, which is hidden right in plain view in the Place Jean-Jaurès. Prior to being dismantled by the Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries only to be rebuilt and destroyed again in the 18th century in response to the destruction of their own places of worship during the wars of religion, the original 11th century church of Notre-Dame des Tables was a major center point for the old village. It took its name for the large tables located outside its wall where the money-changing merchants sat as they exchanged foreign coins. After the church was destroyed, the crypt was obstructed and all that remained of the church was a statute of the virgin Mary. The church was long forgotten until the 20th century during demolishing and excavation. In the musty-smelling crypt we found an ossuary, with bones estimated to date back to the 11th century, papal remains from one of the popes of Avignon, and the remains of a king of the region.

Exploring the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables
Exploring the Crypte de Notre-Dame des Tables

Oddly, the crypt also apparently contains a museum on the history of Montpellier though the exhibits were all closed, and the entire crypt and museum have been closed on a long-term basis.

After the darkness of the crypt we went up, and up, 201 stairs up, into the windy belfry (bell platform?) of the 14th century cathedral of Saint-Pierre. The views from the top were remarkable with the entire city spread out below, an amazing view for someone new to the city.

On top of the belltower of the Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre
On top of the belltower of the Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre
The bells of the Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre
The bells of the Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre

Though <<Les Journées du Patrimoine>> were a great experience, I hope someday we can be in Paris for them as the activities in France’s capital seemed even more explorative into the general off-bounds with visits to archeological sites, private castles and mansions, and a look at some of those abandoned metro cars!