Hi, friends,

More than half over, and I'm mourning the endings of our little vacation. We've had a very active series of days and experiences: the weather turned mild and sunny for a time, and we took the opportunity to visit the regional park of the Haute Languedoc, targeting the cliffside villages. It is difficult to convey the experience of turning a corner on a mountain road and seeing an entire village pasted onto the cliffs opposite. The town in question is Rocquebrun. It turns out that the dolomite towers of the region to the north protect the area from the northern winds, providing shelter to the almost vertical slopes of the southern-oriented hillsides. The result is a "micro-climate" that makes it a perfectly ideal area for the growing of cacti and succulents. We cruised into the village to find the little Auberge de St. Hubert almost ready to serve lunch, which we had in the patio sun, then we started the long climb up to the enormous gardens, nested hundreds of feet above the main town, and arranged in hundreds of individual beds alongside stone stairways and walkways with a view down onto the turn and wide am of the river Orb. We had planned to visit another nearby hilltop town, Olargues, also on the Orb river, but the slow lunch, long climb, and warm sun had turned us to jelly, and we decided to head back to Marseillan, instead. Anyway, recommendation: Rocquebrun, especially if you like exotic plants and beautiful river views.

Actually, I find myself smiling at the efforts and lengths that people go to in order to have a satisfying travel "experience". I think it was Roland Barthes who wrote about the "Protestant" mythic armature of the classic German travel guides--the Baedekers--the first travel guides in the world in the modern sense of the phrase. His perception was that a higher number of "stars" was always reserved for "views" that had to be "earned" by strenuous efforts of climbing---and that sudden, effortless, found pleasures were somehow morally deficient, thereby resurrecting the old theological argument between those who believed salvation was earned by strenuous works on God's behalf, and those who believed that all salvation is bestowed by grace, since all have sinned and no one deserves God's gifts in any case. Whatever the reasons, views from above over a landscape DO seem to satisfy some need in human beings, just as does the urge to walk right to the water's edge and stare out over its expanse, whether a matter of a few yards, or thousands of miles.

Some of these themes have come together in our recent experiences here: if the Rocquebrun "Jardins Méditerranéens" required sweat and sore muscles, our views in Le Cap d'Agde last week required no more than finishing wonderful seafood salads lunch on El Pescador restaurant's tiled patio, then letting the GPS unit direct us to the parking lot of "La Grande Conque" beach---a beach of stunning black sand from a volcanic eruption just offshore, that formed a dramatic range of cliffs above the sea, and furnished the curving bay beach with its glittering black and dark gray sands. Our panoramic view of the entire beach required no effort at all, though the urge to go see the sand and water up close did require that we descend a long stairway to have our walk, and then, of course, a steep climb back up. So we finally "earned" the experience after all. Le Cap d'Agde is a little peninsula into the Mediterranean, with a hill at its end, and is a very short drive away from our local beach (Marseillan Plage). Where Marseillan Plage is a funky little area with tons and tons of trailer park camping spots and a bit of amusement park atmosphere, Le Cap d'Agde is much closer to the ideal of the classic Côtes d'Azures beach resort, with upscale condos, a vast marina full of expensive boats, and amenities for the wealthier clientele who visit there in July and August. It is also home to a rather famous nudist beach, which we did not visit.

We devoted another day to one of the two larger cities in our area---Montpellier, which is the regional capital of Languedoc. The goal was the Musée Fabre, which was hosting a large show of the paintings of the German Expressionist, Emile Nolde--but we also wanted to visit the Galerie Photo, a large photographic exhibition space connected to the museum. The current show features photographers from Spain, whose work was hung in a large series of adjacent galleries on two floors. Two or three of the featured photographers do wonderful work, and Fran came away inspired to get back to her work here immediately. She has been continuing to photograph her still lifes throughout the month, expanding the ideas to include elements to give depth, and local connection, and even using printed and written language as part of the compositions. We have also both been taking huge numbers of standard travel photos and snapshots, and I'm hoping to gather many of them into a website on our return.

The Easter Sunday grand village festival to Spring was entirely rained out, but Easter Monday brought perfect weather, and so we staked out a good parade spot a bit before 3:00 pm, and watched as most of the 3,000 people in this town gradually filled up the town squares and main routes to celebrate the end of winter. The parade was not surprising in the French context---several very drum-oriented marching bands, trumpets and sousaphones competing with the larger number of drummers. There were paper-maché floats (8 of them--carrying dragons, monsters, beauty queens, and, for some reason, one devoted to American Indians!), a full-size truck-built "locomotive" that belched smoke and train sound-effects, pulling a pullman car filled with people in 1920s fashions waving their handkerchiefs from the windows, two or three contingents of "dancing girls" in skimpy outfits doing some version of carnival samba, and in another case, some version of belly-dancing (never mind that some of the "girls" were approaching 60 and barely managing to tuck their tummies and thighs into the costumes chosen.) People threw confetti, blew horns, clapped, and a good time was had by all, I think.

Next a word about driving in France. As I mentioned in my first "report", we have the use of a GPS system that gives us ongoing driving instructions for even the tiniest one-lane road in French farm-country. Since "2001"'s onboard computer was named "Hal", we decided that the sweet feminine voice of our "guide" should be named "Halle". Halle is almost infallible, and has made all the difference in our peace of mind for this trip compared to all other driving trips in other countries. For once no need to stop every few hundred yards to consult maps and try to match up the map with the newly constructed roundabout we are entering. If new construction puzzles Halle, we just drive a few yards onward until she intones "Recalculating, recalculating!" and then gives us new instructions, often involving driving up narrow alleyways almost grazing buildings on both sides until she has got us back on the intended route. We cannot help thinking of "her" as a person, and I find myself thinking irrational things---wandering if she's upset that we made a wrong turn, or why she keeps repeating an instruction to turn left, when she could easily "see" that I already have my left blinker on! Anyway, this little Garmin unit, about cellphone size, is henceforth an absolutely necessary part of any travel. I cannot say how many times Fran and I have been utterly lost in some quartier of Paris, and that particular adventure will not be happening again. What Halle cannot do is change the driving habits of the French. I never drive anywhere without there being a person driving about 20 feet off my back bumper, and making me feel their impatience. It is usually a 20-something-year-old male, but I am learning that it can also be grandmothers on the way to market or guys in business suits. It's just the accepted way to drive---to be ready to pass at any opportunity and to profit from the "draft" of the leading car. Each time I have to learn again to ignore what's happening behind me. I drive at or just below speed limit, and to hell with the rest, often finding that even if I slow down enormously, the person will prefer to drive right on my back bumper, rather than pass. Sometimes I have to just pull off, and let the person go by, but that person is then always replaced by a new designated tailgater. Puzzling.

And finally, a food and wine report: One of the best things about travel (in France, especially) is the variety of new foods to try. We've had razor clams (7" long and shaped like a straight razor), bulots (sea snails), "brique" (a crepe folded around a chunk of very highly spiced, minty, chopped meat in some sort of north African style), lots of delicious little grilled sardines that Fran grills in our oven (don't think of the canned fish--these are tasty, oily small fish that have great texture and taste, and go great with mashed or roasted potatoes), a strange chocolate-rice-pudding, mussels gratinées that Fran made again in our oven, leek cooked almost to mush, then chilled as served as crudité along with celery-root cut like pasta and dressed with good French mayonaise, a wonderful dessert made with fromage blanc and crème de marron--very sweet and sour at once, stuffed mussels, whole grilled dorades, cuttlefish, squid salad, and so on and on. We've drunk a large amount of local wine (languedoc), and especially like the merlot noir, picpoul de pinet white, fougères roseé, but not the much praised muscat sec wine, which might be good for cooking, but is not to our taste for drinking. I read this morning that while the American population drinks an average of 9 liters of wine per year per person, the French drink 54 liters, and the Italians, 46. We are doing our damndest to put America back in the game, but unfortunately right now we are adding to the French statistics, rather than those of the US. Of course it really helps that nothing we drink here costs more than $4.00 per bottle, usually much much less. Our lunch wines are excellent and usually cost about $6 for a half liter in any restaurant. Civilization. The only real issue about lunches is that it is a LOT cheaper to order the 3-course "menu" than single dishes of meat or fish, so in spite of our resolutions, we end up getting a large salad or fish appetizer of some sort, almost enough for lunch by itself, and then the main dish with vegetables, etc., and then dessert, and then coffee. Today I had a big platter of cold salads of various kinds, veal in white wine mushroom sauce, brussel sprouts, green beans, some white vegetable, then dessert and coffee, and the bill for both of us was around $30.

OK, again I've gone on too long, so I'll stop.
Happily, and with best wishes to all for your month,


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