Consider this a little note in the key of bliss. Fran and I are now
living in a hundreds-years-old house snugged in France against the
city wall of the Greek city of Marseillan, which was founded about
500BC. Today we walked the length of the waterfront out to the line
of decrepit buildings and boats that sport a big sign from the Departement
d'Herault, touting the sponsorship of its major project in conchilycole---or
some such word indicating the farming of shellfish, mostly oysters,
in the shallow Étang de Thau, where hundreds of yards of low
structures drop ropes into the salty inland sea to allow oysters,
mussels, clams, and such to grow in abundance. Believe me they know
what they are doing. Our seafood lunches have been wonderful in the
port's Brasserie du Soleil and La Taverne du Port.
But the best find
for food so far is the unassuming Boulevard Restaurant two blocks
from our house, featuring a large open hearth at the head of the room,
with a flat grill set flat in front and below the fire, such that
live coals can be raked from the big fire directly onto the grill
table and then shoved under the cooking surface for all their grilled
fish, beef, and steaks, that the patron cooks while tossing
palmfuls of spices onto the meat. We've had grilled pork, moules frites,
salade de gésiers, and rabbit in onion sauce there in our two
meals so far, and paid around $30, including excellent local wines
and expressos. Our first meal in the town was at the Brasserie du
Soleil immediately on arriving in town, with a view of the entire
port. We both had whole grilled dorade fish. Fran had sea escargot
to start, while I had petits fritures---tiny fish grilled and eaten
whole like french fries. Plus, of course, amazingly good wines and
crèmes brulées for dessert. You get the idea. We are
eating very well---not to mention the fact the Fran is cooking up
a storm for our dinners (she brought about 80 recipes specific to
the region--and to our traditional needs). Last night's roast chicken
was wonderful, and we are drinking Picpoul de Pinet whites and a newly
discovered very cheap "Merlot" that bears little resemblance
to what we usually think of as Merlot. It is much closer to the black-red
wines of Cahors of very dark red color and very light texture and
taste. These wines are lighter than chianti or syrah or côtes
du rhone, but look as dark in the glass as the world's heaviest burgundy.
Watching the kids suit up for catamaran sailing lessons on our beach
today took me back to my first catamaran sailing adventures in France
in the 1960s, when I had the use of a couple Hobie Cats to sail at
will, even this time of the year, out of L'Aygaude harbor over by
Hyères. I regularly risked my life chasing the America's Cup
racers around the bay, and once sailed many miles offshore to an island
and back on a 14 foot boat intended for beachfront recreation---and
obviously survived the Med's formidable mistral swells. I cannot imagine
now that I did that. I was thinking adventure rather than suicide.
Our house is three storeys: first is a garage (originally for farm
animals). Second floor is 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, plus a very
large living area. Third floor is a very large kitchen and living
room with woodstove, as well as entrance to a patio with table and
chairs for 6, looking out on the steeple of the village church. The
third floor was originally for fodder for the animals, and now it
is fodder for the two of us! The entire town population is under 4,000,
but in spite of that it feels like a much larger city. We drifted
around the market in the square by the church (as always in France)
this morning to buy spices, candied ginger, vegetables, cheese, olives,
and other necessities, and it did not seem terribly smaller than other
market towns of our experience, including Cahors--a much, much larger
town. See our travel website for 2003/2004 for France at www.taylorlink.com
for comparisons, if this sort of travel-reporting interests you. I
love being in a town small enough to allow us to walk everywhere---to
groceries, newspapers, the port, many restaurants, greengrocers, bakeries,
bars, seafood bars, multiple parks and gardens, and so on.
Our landlords for the month are a Dutch couple, Ann Mary and Willem,
who've hired Manuela--a wonderful German woman, who is intelligent
in several languages, and who arrives here by bicycle in her Rembrandt
hat to give us keys, tell stories, recommend restaurants and grocers.
The best thing is that we got the rental at half-price, because the
owners had planned to be doing some masonry work on the property during
our stay (they did not), and it has every need met: dishwasher, laundry,
totally refurbished interior, all appliances, all furnishings and
linens, heat, phone, television and music, Ann Mary's frescoes, a
woodstove, and so on and on. I can hardly believe our good luck in
finding this place online. All interior spaces have been made in the
past five years or so, and the 2 bathrooms are state of the art, with
Fran is setting up to do interior photos (her show of photographs
opens on Tuesday in Portland---see http://www.une.edu/artgallery/photography0409.asp
for the show announcement, featuring one of her still lifes.) And,
of course, we are taking pictures everywhere as we travel.
Many days we drive to a nearby town to walk or take pictures. The
major discovery in the travel department this time is our FREE GPS
that came with our car rental for the month from Auto Europe in Portland.
We have named our unit (just about the size of a cell-phone) "Halle",
since she is easily as powerful as Hal in 2001, but is a female voice
barking out instructions for which exit we must take from the roundabout,
and she is ALMOST infallible. It is an entirely new way to travel
in Europe! No anxiety about having taken the wrong exit and finding
oneself in uncharted villages. Wherever we are Halle gets us home
with incredible efficiency and assuredness. Yesterday, for example,
we drove to Villeneuve-les-Béziers to go for a long walk along
the Canal du Midi under the plane trees and past hundreds of Dutch-style
barge boats that serve as residences for (evidently) hundreds of people,
rocking in the quiet canal under the trees. As an old boat guy, I
confess to some envy. She got confused only once in a section where
some one-way streets had been recently reversed, and we ended up hearing
her insist "Turn left, then turn left, then turn left, then turn
left", while trying to sort out our unexpected driving pattern.
Nothing to do but turn her off, drive a kilometer, and then start
from scratch to let her tell us how to get home. Which she did flawlessly.
Cannot say how nice it is never to be lost in Europe while driving
on terrible narrow roads in totally unfamiliar areas!
OK, I'm taking a break. My wine needs refilling, and Fran is well
along in making dinner, so maybe I'll finish this later or tomorrow.
Meanwhile I wish you all an excellent April, including benign April
Fools' surprises, and please consider sending us a bit of news from
your part of the planet. Maybe next week I'll put up a few pictures.
We'll be here until the end of April.
OK, I'm back after Fran's great dinner, as the clotted clouds pass
behind the church steeple, and purple starts to predominate in the
We brought our laptop, along with a few thousand songs in mp3 format,
so our background music is wonderful, though I must admit that Bill
Evans predominates most evenings. The computer, plus a memory stick
serves to back up our photographs nicely.
Next segment of our trip requires thought about whether we do little
walks and day-trips, or go farther afield to towns and areas we've
not seen before. I promise not to insert all of our meanderings into
your mailbox. I just wanted to share something of our current good
fortune with you, and to invite your responses. If you ever want to
come to this part of France for a vacation, let us know so we can
give you information about the rental and the town.
And en passant we send you all good wishes (I have been very
pleased to be able this trip to negotiate everything in my version
of French without problems--maybe one of the perks of getting older?
) I just pretend I'm about to speak English, and then speak French,
instead, and usually it works. I hope this ruse continues to work!
Please send news, and happy April, Fool or not! (Excuse me if some
of this is not news due to former emails, but I wanted to do one larger
email to friends.....)
Darrell (& Fran)