Showing posts with label Languedoc. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Languedoc. Show all posts

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Travellers' Curse

This was not meant to be a miserable post, and I hope that it isn’t, but I was minded to ponder my wanderings after rereading an aphorism in a blog that I follow. It is wildly known as the Travellers' Curse, and appears in many variants, and this is but one.

“The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love; it drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that’s perfect (we all know there’s no Shangri-La), but just for a place that’s “just right for you.” But the curse is that the more you experience, the odds of finding “just right” get smaller, not larger. So you keep looking even more, but the more that you see, the harder it gets”. 

This is Part A

I love to travel, and have noticed that as an addiction, travel follows the traditional paths of most compulsions, requiring ever more adventure, ever more frequency and ever more “interesting” places to be.


It is the yellow one 

The case in point is the rather tranquil, if not traditionally beautiful, village of Esperaza in the Languedoc region of the south of France. It is not the most glamorous place that I have visited, but it is a destination that captivates me.

Now, the dining room 


In 2007, I bought an old butcher’s shop in the main street of this unprepossessing town on a complete and utter whim. In fact, it was seen at 11.00am, purchased by 1.00pm and by 4.00pm that afternoon we were flying back to Canada; why we did this most reckless thing I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted that we did.

For some reason, Esperaza ticks more of my boxes than most places; it is lovely, quiet (apart from the periodic concerts in the main square), and nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees ninety minutes from the sea. It is in an area steeped in mythology, Rennes le Chateau is visible from my “office” as I type this, and the belief system of the Cathars still holds many adherents, as do a multitude of unorthodox spiritual beliefs.

It is an area of spectacular walks, remote castles, a river that is ideal for rafting and kayaking, opportunities for horseback riding, medieval markets and beyond all, some quite delightful and fascinating people.

And, because people and relationships are the most important facet of any destination and any journey they form Part B of the Travellers' Curse.

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. However, the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them, and as you cannot travel with them all all of the time, it becomes harder to develop deep relationships. Yet as one keeps traveling and meeting amazing people, it feels fulfilling; eventually, of course, you miss them all, although many have all but forgotten who you are!
Then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of separation, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more often than they will want to hear them.
Another road trip seems to be the only answer”

Now, I don’t want this to sound melancholy, and I am not sitting here wringing my hands, but it is an interesting phenomenon, and one that frequent travellers know well. It has to be said, however, that few get to the point of permanent vagabonding, and most of us have real roots to which to return.


 


 But I digress; the spectrum of people in Esperaza is astonishing, and offers a warm and varied posse to join. Part of the reason is the simple variety; as we make friends at home there is more often a common denominator of education, work or children. None of these criteria come to play as you meet other wanderers in later life, and the spectrum of friends can be quite delightful.

And, as one can see from the images of folks trying to seek solace in passing companionship, travelling can be a lonely affair.

Above all, this curious confluence of people, beauty, access (Barcelona is only three hours away, and the redoubtable Ryanair can whisk one to London from the airport forty-five minutes away on a daily basis), activity and the important fact that they make a very nice drop of wine in these parts, combine to have made us stop and buy a toe-hold without a second thought.

I do look forward to returning to Winnipeg, but am grateful for the friends that I have in Esperaza, London, Tbilisi and so many others scattered around this fascinating world of ours.


Xinalic, Azerbaijan - hospitality and friendship are everywhere


And certainly, without Facebook, keeping in touch would be very difficult indeed!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Wine Festival; your correspondent starts licking his lips ...

I realise that I have a lifestyle that borders on the unusual, and for that I am grateful. I am able to wander, see odd and disparate places, meet fascinating people and gather a treasure trove of useless facts with which I can pepper conversation for months.

March 2014, however, has been exceptional.

It has been a month of flying, North Korea, a stamp auction in Hong Kong and a day in Macau, selling a flat in London, a wine conference and speed tasting in Tbilisi and now a few days of rest in the South of France before the annual onslaught of the local Toques et Clochers festival.

Firstly, a word about the festival; imagine if you will, a small village of (perhaps) 450 souls playing host to a crowd of up to 30,000 for a day of celebration, duck sandwiches and wine. Copious amounts of wine, I might add, not just a child’s portion; enough to make some of the hill-folk loose all inhibitions about playing instruments that look suspiciously like Scooped Out Sheep in public.



The celebration is an annual event, and villages throughout the region that supplies the major winery Sieur d'Arques. Villages bid for the right to host the annual festival in a manner not unlike the competitions to host the World Cup or the Olympics, however with significantly smaller budgets. The winner will then have a couple of years to raise funds, establish numerous committees, create special weather prayers and wait for the event.

On the day itself, thousands of visitors, almost all of whom are local, will purchase a glass (€5), some tokens for wine (€2/glass and €10/bottle), and then head off into the madding crowd. Wine stalls selling their wares are everywhere, as are musicians, folks selling duck sandwiches and oysters, jugglers, drummers and thousands of folk. Knee-deep in wine, with laughter rising perceptibly in volume as the afternoon progresses but rarely a smashing glass and never a fight the event continues until the early hours of the morning.




 



It is impossible to imagine rivers-full of alcohol, glasses and thousands of people in the UK, for example, without conjuring up images of horror, but here in the Languedoc, the festival is charming, well organised, exceptionally amusing and held on the weekend before Easter each year. Make a note in your diaries.

It is, my friend Hubert says, the largest tourist event that isn't a tourist event that he has ever seen. And as a former CEO of a provincial tourist department for decades, he should know.

But then again, if Peter Mayle had written a book called A Year in the Languedoc, the economy of the south of France would be completely different. The region, known but unknown, is delightful. The centre of the Cathar religion in the 10th to 12th centuries, it still harbours mysteries and intrigue among devotees of mystery and intrigue! The Cathars, the Holy Grail, Mary’s escape from the Holy Land, The da Vinci Code, all mixed up with wine, fine food, delightful scenery and not a little story telling.

And so the festival, as far from Pyongyang as I can imagine, starts in four days. It is said in these parts that Don Perignon discovered his wine-making secrets here before moving to Champagne where they figured out how to bottle the stuff without it blowing up. Fanciful, I imagine, and probably as truthful as the DPRK’s Concrete Wall, but there you go, it is a good story. Nostradamus himself was supposed to have dwelt in a nearby village, but a little prodding of the museum’s curator, and a rather wistful comment of “Well, he might have stayed the night in the village once” comes a touch closer to the truth.

Sometimes it can all become overwhelming

However, it is true that the production of wine is no stranger to these parts.

Livy was recorded as trading non-sparkling wines with the Romans, and the first references to “Blanquette”, or “Small White”, came from the Benedictine Monks who made the first sparkling wines here in 1531. The other white grape of some substantial use here is Mauzac, which along with Chardonnay and Pinot are the grapes from which the delicious local Crement de Limoux is made.

All grist to the mill, and worthy of examination.

It is, perhaps, worth relating a little story about wine sales, and one that perhaps illuminates a great fiction of the world of mega-wine.

For several years, the Limoux winery Sieur d’Arques exported tankers-full of Pinot Noir to Gallo in the US, who sold this far and wide under the Red Bicyclette label. So popular was this concoction that new warehouses were built, and for all I know, special docking facilities for the ever-larger tankers racing this popular brew from the south of France to the US of A.

All was well until a sharp-eyed accountant pointed out that they were in fact selling to Gallo alone, approximately 200% of the annual output of Pinot Noir grapes. Now interestingly, during this period, not a single customer, nor a single Gallo executive or wine taster, questioned the adulteration of their potion by the addition of the cheaper Merlot grape. A small fine was levied discreetly, one would not want this sort of scandal to hit the front pages, Red Bicyclette was relabelled and presumably launched to new heights.


Curious things, palates.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

France always surprises

One of the wonders of the world is surely the amount of world-class tourist sites that France hides away in the country. A short drive in almost any direction will lead to UNESCO protected caves, small galleries housing a world-class collection, truffle museums, discreet museums of ancient religious art in a small and little-visited abbey and even camping sites with a fine restaurant.

Guided by our friends Clement and Christel, and their delightful 12-year-old daughter Lucie, we headed off to the Minervois; this wonderful wine region lies to the north of Carcassonne, toward the ominously named Montagnes Noir. And as we drove toward them, they were distinctly noir.

Fortunately, unlike Spain, the rain ventures not to the plain, and stayed in the hills, but among a few drops, we arrived at the Gouffre Geant de Cabrespine. I hadn't either, but no matter, it seems that the site has enough visitors.

It was extraordinary; standing in a massive cavern some one-hundred meters tall, and surrounded by the stalactites and stalagmites of both the most delicate and the most robust, it was impossible not to simply allow one's jaw to drop and stare. A simple, but effective lighting system, designed to both protect and illuminate, highlighted the various growths splendidly. We were told of a possible tour of four to five hours, that would include climbing down eighty metres of ladders to the ground and following into some of the seventeen kilometres of caves, caverns and rivers; tempting, but for next time.

Geology and time make superb partners; this cavern, the result of two massive limestone layers, one Devonian from 250 million years ago and one Silurian from 350 million years ago crashing together and forming the cave. The growth of the concretions formed only in the older Silurian stone, and together with the other extraordinary patterns, growths and frankly eerie shapes and shadows, made for the best science lesson that I can remember.

And what goes best with a couple of hours dabbling in speleology?  Why truffles, of course, and so to the evocatively named Maison de la Truffe some ten kilometres up the road in the charming village of Villeneuve Minervois.

Truffles are mysterious, and although we were too late for the museum, the gift shop was open. As a consequence, we were introduced to an Aperitif Artisanal a la Truffe. Now I had never heard of any alcoholic drink being infused with the jus de truffe (1%), but I can assure you that it is a sound idea. This along with truffle-infused oils (olive, grape seed and others), vinegars (balsamic and white varieties), mustards, pestos and a variety of other condiments. There were truffle knives, truffle graters, truffle inscribed egg-cups too although I couldn't quite make that connection, and of course a variety of wild-boars (4,50 - 25,00, depending on size) and posters.

And, perhaps more importantly, we were told of the Truffle Festival that is taking place all day only 20kms from my house.

So, if you will excuse me, I shall go to the festival, and tell you all about it later.