Mont Saint-Clair, Sète

Kathryn and I made a spontaneous afternoon trip to Sète yesterday, during which we climbed Mont Saint-Clair by foot. I don’t usually use the panoramic mode on my mobile phone camera, but this seemed like a good time to break that habit.

The view from about halfway up, looking over the Mediterranean Sea:

The view from the top, looking over the Thau Lagoon:

These photos may look better on a tablet or desktop. Or maybe they won’t. I haven’t checked yet.

I was quite certain there would be a café at the top of the mountain, and I was correct. It was open every day from 10 am to 7 pm — that is, every day except Wednesdays. So we walked back down and enjoyed some drinks in a café overlooking the canal, which was every bit as nice.

There are some who call Sète the “Venice of Languedoc”, but I don’t think the comparison is fair. Frankly, I’d much rather spend an afternoon in Sète.

Cassoulet languedocien

One of the things you’re supposed to do when you visit Carcassonne is to try the cassoulet, a dish made with meat and white beans, served like a stew. Kathryn got a photo of hers before she dug in.

Cassoulet languedocien
(Photo by KG7NRB)

Our cassoulet was made with a pork sausage and had a roasted duck thigh too. The menu called it cassoulet languedocien, the latter word referring to the Languedoc region where both Carcassonne and Montpellier are located.

Was it good? Well, it was only the second time I’ve ever had cassoulet, and the first time was rather unmemorable. This one I enjoyed. However, it’s a rich, heavy dish — you can’t see all the spices and seasonings — and since we had ordered it as part of a three-course fixed-price menu, we had to quit the main course early to save room for dessert.

By the way, I mentioned in an earlier post that a friend had recommended a place to eat cassoulet in Carcassonne, but we had forgotten to get the name and address from him. When we spoke again on Monday, it turned out we had stumbled onto the right place based on the detailed description he gave us. For what it’s worth, the name of the place is Le Plô, and it’s located on rue Plô inside the walled city of Carcassonne.

Carcassonne

To follow up on yesterday’s post, we had a lovely time in Carcassonne. We arrived at the train station around 8:15 am, and after spending a few minutes checking out the Canal du Midi, we sat down for a relaxing breakfast before making the roughly half-hour walk to the walled city. Along the way we passed an open-air market, and Kathryn spent some time taking photos of an unusually friendly stray cat.

We arrived in the walled city around 10, just as the entrance to the chateau and ramparts was opening. The first stop on the chateau tour was an eleven-minute video that let us know how little is known about the old city. It did, however, answer my most burning question, which was, “Why here?” Well, the answer is, the line between France and Spain changed over the centuries. At one point, Carcassonne was an important outpost along the frontier of France. As more Spanish territories became French, Carcassonne became further and further from the frontier, diminished in importance, and was eventually abandoned as a royal outpost.

The rest of the tour focused primarily on the architecture, which come from different periods. The earliest parts of the city date to the late Roman Empire, while much expansion was done during the Middle Ages, probably after the lands came into the possession of the French royal family after an “internal crusade” thwarted a heresy that was taking root in the region.

The tour ended with a half-hour walk along the ramparts of the walled city — worth the price of admission by itself for its views of the chateau, the old city, and modern-day Carcassonne below.

After the tour it was time for an early lunch. We picked a place just off the main square inside the walled city, trying to identify a restaurant suggested by a friend — he gave us a good description, but we forgot the name. We ordered cassoulet, a regional specialty made with beans, sausage, and in our case a duck thigh. It was tasty, but it was far too much food for lunch, especially as one of three courses.

After lunch, we had a long, leisurely walk back to the train station, spending a little more time at the canal before beginning the ride back to Montpellier.

Hockey in Montpellier

It’s the second intermission of the first French hockey match I’ve ever attended. The Montpellier Vipers are hosting the Avignon Something-or-Others. Here are some of my impressions:

It’s not much of a crowd. I’d measure the turnout in hundreds, not thousands. Then again, this is a Division 2 match, and since the premier French league doesn’t use a number, Division 2 is really the third division. So think ECHL, not NHL.

The snack bar is great. A ham and butter sandwich and a large beer set us back only eight euros.

The worst on-ice performance has come from the Zamboni driver. Apparently one of the things you can’t do while talking on the phone is drive a Zamboni. No one told this guy. The ice looked like my parents’ yard when I was twelve and I helped my dad mow the grass.

I started writing this post at the end of the first period when the score was tied. I was going to say the Vipers were outplaying Avignon in every aspect other than goaltending. Since then, Avignon’s goaltending has completely fallen apart, allowing Montpellier to score five unanswered goals. It’s almost a slaughter at this point.

Update: We stayed through the end of the game, which the Vipers won 9-2. Avignon finally replaced its goalie, but not before he allowed a penalty shot. Also, it turns out the name of the Avignon team is the Castors, which translates as “beavers”.

It’s about 7:15 am, around the time we’ve been getting out of bed most mornings since our arrival in France, but today we’ve been awake over two hours and are more than one hour into our train ride to Carcassonne. The train rolled out of the station on Beziers several minutes ago, and as the first morning twilight is appearing, we’re finally catching a glimpse of farmlands, vineyards, and rolling hills. We were in Montpellier last year, but with only a week at our disposal, we didn’t feel we had the time to take such a far-flung day trip. This year we have considerably more flexibility.

Yesterday we decided to enjoy a happy-hour round of drinks in one of the several cafes in the busy plaza beneath our apartment in Montpellier.

It’s tough to make out the bronze statue in the center of the plaza, partly obscured by the umbrella stand, but it’s of Jean Jaurès, after whom the plaza is named. I’ll let the reader determine whether there’s a hint of irony in a plaza named after the father of French socialism having almost every square inch of its surface covered with commercial enterprises.

The service in our cafe was subpar, but the overall ambiance of watching the world go by in this bustling historic district of small metropolis more than made up for it. Our order: one pint of 1664, one mojito.

Can you guess which one of us had which drink?

Interesting side note: More and more I’m finding servers using the word “pinte” here in Montpellier. It’s not a metric unit from any textbook I’ve ever read, but at 50 centiliters, it’s slightly larger than a U.S. pint and considerably smaller than a British pint. In one place I asked for a 50-centiliter glass of beer and was “corrected” to pinte.

Kathryn and I arrived a few minutes early our first day of classes. This is the view from the patio where many of us gather during the morning breaks.

The street below the patio is Rue St. Guilhem, a busy shopping area with limited access to motor vehicles. Guilhem is the word for William in Occitan, the language spoken in this part of France before French became the standard.

In the photo, there are few people out and about. By 10 am it’s an altogether different story.

La sauce “ranch”

The last two times Kathryn and I were in France, we were impressed by all the fresh vegetables we found at local produce markets, but we were at a loss for how to prepare them. A salad seemed obvious, but the salad dressings in France aren’t particularly tasty. From what I’ve been told, most salads in France are dressed with homemade dressing, which is supposed to explain the lack of prepared dressing choices on supermarket shelves. Makes sense.

Several months ago I had a lightbulb go on over my head: Although bringing a bottle of salad dressing to France seemed silly — especially if it exploded all over my laundry — bringing a couple packets of ranch dressing mix and buying the mayonnaise and milk in-country seemed rather practical. For a few extra ounces of weight and a little extra space in my luggage, I also brought a plastic shaker bottle. I felt inspired.

After watching a few too many episodes of Border Security, my only mild concern was customs possibly taking the packet from me if they opened my bag. As it turned out, when our plane arrived at the airport in Montpellier, the customs officers didn’t. Nothing to worry about this time.

The snag came when we went to the supermarket to buy mayonnaise. It never occurred to me all the mayonnaise in France is made with mustard, which isn’t in standard American mayonnaise, at least not in any noticeable quantity. Screw it, we bought some anyway and prepared the dressing according to the usual recipe. And we’re glad we did.

With our French-style ranch dressing, Kathryn yesterday reinvented the BLT, using a baguette from the local bakery for the bread, fresh lettuce and tomatoes from a nearby produce merchant, and bacon from the supermarket. Oh-la-la! This evening she used it again to make us burgers with Emmenthal cheese, again on a fresh baguette and with some of the remaining tomatoes and lettuce and a red onion. Another masterpiece!

(Photo by KG7NRB)

Sometime this week, perhaps we’ll even make a salad.

There was a special Europe-wide event going on this past weekend, the upshot of which was most of the museums in Montpellier were free. We had made other plans for Sunday afternoon, but we abandoned them in favor of visiting the Musée Fabre instead.

I don’t know how to describe the permanent collection other than to say general art. It was almost entirely European painting, sixteenth century and later, with a bit of sculpture thrown in for good measure. There was a bias toward painters from Montpellier and the surrounding regions, so I was introduced to painters whose names I had previously only known as local street names.

One painting captured my attention more than the others, perhaps because it was Sunday. It was a larger-than-life depiction of the baptism of Christ, by a painter named Jean Restout with whom I am otherwise unfamiliar.

I had to stand back about fifteen feet to get the entire painting in the photo.