Cassaigne (Occitaine), France September 2022

With just 200 inhabitants, Cassaigne is the smallest of the three villages we visited during our stay in Eauze. In reality it is now little more than a hamlet.

Built by the Bishops of Condom the original 13th century Chateau de Cassaigne was remodelled over a period of time and by the turn of the 16th century a pretty little village, complete with church, had formed around it.

During the French Revolution the State confiscated the property from the church and it was auctioned off. For many years thereafter it remained in private hands until in 2003 the wine cooperative Plaimont purchased the 30 acre Cassaigne estate. Nowadays, 20% of the estates vines are used to produce Armagnac and the other 80% goes towards the production of red, white and rose Cotes de Gascogne wines.

Plaimont operate wine tasting sessions from the chateau but we didn’t have time for that. We simply sampled some of the cooperative’s produce and then purchased a few bottles of their white wine for drinking back in the UK. I also bought a three bottle sampler selection of the chateau’s Armagnac. I’ll try those on my own one cold winter evening in Brighton.

After a short walk around the outside of the chateau primarily to get a closer look at the Fallow Deer enclosure, we made our way back to Eauze for dinner at the Michelin rated restaurant La Vie en Rise.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit Cassaigne but it could perhaps be taken in on the back of a visit to nearby Condom, a quiet rural medieval market town with a fairly impressive cathedral.

Larressingle (Occitaine), France September 2022

From our base in Eauze, we took the Van out to visit three local villages. The first to be visited was Montreal sur Gers (see previous post). We then drove a few kilometres further east to the medieval fortress village of Larressingle, also known as the Little Carcassonne of Gers.

Larressingle is also a ‘Plus Beau Village de France’ and fully deserving of the title. It is also something of a tourist attraction being the most visited destination in the Gers (and on the Chemin de Puy to Santiago) but it was almost empty as we arrived. It is a small village almost completely surrounded by 300 metres of heavy fortified walls (that are for the most part in excellent condition) and it is full of charm.

There is only one entrance into the village, across an old moat and through a double arched stone bridge. Inside the fortress walls is a church and a range of medieval houses, most of which are set with their backs to the castle walls and are now home to craft shops and cafes and the local tourist office. It is beautiful.

Having walked all around the inside and the outside of the village we paused for a light lunch – a local artisan beer and a local pizza with goat’s cheese. Very tasty.

Montreal du Gers (Occitaine), France September 2022

While staying in Eauze we took time to visit some of the surrounding villages, starting with Montreal du Gers, a “Plus Beau Village de France” just 10 miles or so to the north east of Eauze.

Sitting on the banks of the Auzoue River, Montreal du Gers is an old bastide town dating back to 1255. It is organised around a small central square of arcades and the gothic collegiate church of Notre Dame (sometimes referred to as the Church of Saint Philippe et Saint Jacques). Unfortunately, we didn’t see the central square in it’s best light. It is used as the town car park and during our visit was packed with cars. It was a pity because if ever a square needed to be pedestrianised it is this one.

We paused in Montreal du Gers long enough to enjoy the small market on the square and walk a slow circuit of the place before moving on to another much smaller but more impressive village to the east, Larressingle. Overall, I didn’t rate Montreal du Gers. It certainly doesn’t have the charm one would ordinarily expect of a “Plus Beau Village de France”.

Notwithstanding the above, just outside Montreal du Gers is the small hamlet of Seviac and the remains of a 2nd century Roman villa, the ‘Villa Seviac’. This villa was a large and luxurious residence discovered by a local farmer in 1864 although it was neither explored nor excavated until the 1970’s. It is now a museum. Little is left of the villa’s original walls but many of it’s mosaics have been restored to their original splendour and they rank amongst the best of their kind in France.

NB We visited Montreal du Gers mid September 2022 but this blog was not completed and posted until 22 October – apologies.

Eauze (Occitaine), France September 2022

And so to Eauze and an altogether nicer part of France. Eauze is only a small town (4,000 people) but it is recognised as the capital of the Armagnac area. Moreover it is surrounded by a clutch of interesting villages, a number of which are included in the list of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ and it has a reasonably priced Michelin Restaurant (La Vie en Rose). We knew immediately that Eauze was going to be good and so we booked into the municipal campsite for a few days with a view to using it as a base from which to explore both Eauze and various local villages (Montreal du Gers, Larressingle, Cassaigne). The campsite was quiet (it would close for winter the following week) but it has a pool, a pleasant and very popular restaurant (Restaurant au Moulin de Pouy) and is just a short walk from a large Leclerc supermarket and the town centre itself.

Initially named Elusa in Roman times, Eauze is a town of some considerable historical significance (especially during France’s Religious Wars). It was home to Henri III of Navarre (who was subsequently crowned Henri IV of France) and his wife Marguerite de Valois (who was sister to no less than three French Kings – Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III – and popularised by Alexandre Dumas in his historical novel ‘La Reine Margot’). I recall watching the 1994 film version of Dumas’ book which starred Isabelle Adjani in the title role.

Eauze may be small but around it’s main square (which, unusual in rural France, has a bar that stayed open until one o’clock in the morning) there is a decent sized medieval quarter of narrow streets simply teeming with character.

Also on the main square is a former cathedral, now a church, dedicated to Saint Luperc. Luperc (sometimes known as Luperculus) was a Bishop when the town was controlled by the Romans. He was martyred by the Romans during the reign of Emporer Trajan (3rd Century?). The original 15th/16th century church was destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu during the final days of France’s Religious Wars and the current building was built during the 18th century on the site of the older church. It is a tall but narrow Gothic building which, while not all that impressive from the outside, is quite distinctive on the inside. It is unusually light and airy and the apse contains a series of impressive paintings depicting the life of Jesus Christ and some beautiful long colourful stained glass windows.

One of the highlights of our visit to Eauze was a meal at La Vie en Rose, a Michelin listed restaurant which clearly deserves a star. It highlights local cuisine at very reasonable prices. A budget menu of the day was avalable but we went a la carte. I started with a really refreshing Salade de Saint Jacques a l’orange et aux avocats and followed it with the chef’s speciality, an earthy main of Papillotes de Saint Jacques au Foie Gras. The accompanying wine was a local Tariquet Amplitude recommended by the chef. I’m writing this blog some weeks after we left Eauze and, shame on me, I cannot remember Vanya’s main (she didn’t bother with a starter) but I recall her having a great looking dessert, a Marquise au Chocolat Creme Caramel, which she described as “simply divine”. I finished with a very good Armagnac but, in hindsight, I wish I too had taken a dessert. The ‘La Croustade’ looked fantastic.

We had our dogs with us when we visited La Vie En Rose and so ate outside.
Papillotes de Saint Jacques au Foie Gras. They were cooked and served in aluminium.

One other feature of Eauze which I found particularly impressive was the local street art (most of which seemed to have been created by the one artist).

Saint Gaudens (Occitaine), France August 2022

Camped up in Montrejeu and I somehow broke the Van’s fly screen. There’s no way you can spend Summer in a van in the south of France or Spain (our next port of call) without a fly screen so; we drove to the nearest (larger) town of Saint Gaudens to find the French equivalent of B&Q – Mr Bricolage.

Saint Gaudens is not the prettiest town in France but we arrived on a market day and we love local markets. So with the fly screen temporarily sorted via the purchase of a Moustiquaire Magnetique (just 12 euros), we wandered around the market; Vanya sourced a supply of ‘cbd’ in a local shop and; best of all we sat at the edge of the market and nursed a coffee and watched the world go by for a while.

Oh, and there’s one more thing worth knowing about Saint Gaudens. Dominique Bouchait, one of the great French cheese masters, is based in Montrejeau and, while his cheese factory is in his home town (alongside Camping Paradis), he has an impressive store in Saint Gaudens (Les Fromagers du Mont Royal).

It was a lazy four days in Montrjeu.

Montrejeau (Occitaine), France August 2022

I last visited in Montrejeau in July 2019 (during Tour 2) but I never kept a blog that Tour, choosing instead to simply post brief details on Facebook. I recall I wasn’t very complimentary about the town in my FB entry. That was perhaps unfair because I didn’t get a good look at Montrejeau. My focus then was more towards the excellent camp site I stayed at (Camping du Paradis) and my trip to ‘le plus beau village’ of Saint Bertrand de Comminges where a medieval festival was under way. That was a great day but, it is time to put the record straight about Montrejeux.

Once again I chose to stay at Camping du Paradis and once again it was brilliant (nice pitch, facilities and people) although it is now three times more expensive than it was in July 2019. No matter, it was good enough for us to stay 4 days.

As for Montrejeau it’s a small town with no more than 3,000 people but, it has a couple of real plus points and it has some history. On balance I was a little unfair about the place and while Montrejeau is unlikely to set the world alight in my lifetime, it is a reasonable base from which to explore the Haute-Garonne.

So what did I see this time that I never saw before? Well, for a starter I missed the town’s main street. Instead I made my way from the campsite down along the Boulevard Bertrand de Lassusand then onto and over the town bridge to Saint Bertrand de Comminges. I returned the same way and as such missed the Marie (the town hall), the war memorial (it’s really quite unique), the Eglise de St Jean Baptiste (beautiful plain inside) and L’hotel de Lassus (the town’s most impressive mansion).

The church, L’Eglise de St Jean Baptiste, has an unusual octagonal shape tower but is otherwise unimpressive, until you get inside. The arched dark wooden roof and the roughly hewn cream coloured stone walls complement each other wonderfully well and the church isn’t full of garish furniture that might detract from what amounts to a beautifully simple interior. I like it.

L’Hotel de Lassus is not, nor ever was, a hotel. It’s a mansion (many French mansions are referred to as l’hotels), dating from the late 18th century and it belonged to the same Lassus family whose progeny subsequently built the 1892 Chateau de Valmirande. Nowadays it is used as a reception hall and there is a small space museum inside it.

Chateau Valmirande

One other attraction I sought out during this more recent visit to Montrjeau is it’s leisure centre and lake. The lake was developed out of a former gravel pit and extends over thirty hectares. To one side of the lake is a ‘Blue Flag’ water park complete with water slides and a bouncy obstacle course (I had to restrain Vanya from the obstacle course on the water) and the other side of the lake is for fishing.

So, Montréjeau does have more to it than I first thought after my visit in 2019.

I mentioned too that it has some history. Well, it was the scene of one of the last battles between Republicans and Royalists during the French Revolution. In the summer of 1799, anti-revolutionary insurrection broke out in the area which threatened even the city of Toulouse. The Paris Directory quickly sent an army to the area and the rebels were crushed at Montrejeau in August 1799.

Moureze (Occitaine), France August 2022

The next day, I was more than a little surprised that Vanya remained keen to visit the Cirque de Moureze, especially after she had seen the photos taken by our dinner companions of the previous evening. This simply wasn’t her thing but, then again, she has surprised me in the past and, hey, life is for living. It never occured to me that she wasn’t wearing her glasses the night before and couldn’t actually see the photos she was being shown.

And so we made the short drive to the tiny village of Moureze. We paid our 5 Euros to park in the car park by the visitor centre at the edge of the village, grabbed the dogs and set off on one of the shorter trails through the Cirque de Moureze…

We were in the 300 hectare park which is the Cirque de Moureze for about an hour and I certainly enjoyed our time there. The views are sensational. There are a number of well marked trails through the park which are of between one and three hours duration and they take you through a strange and spectacular landscape full of ‘Dolomites’. Dolomites are large limestone rocks which have been weathered by wind and water erosion over thousands of years into tall columns and all kinds of weird shapes. Put simply,the softer limestone is washed away to leave the harder rock sculptures, some of which are up to 500 metres high, and they make for great scrambling.

Looking back over the village of Moureze
Looking forward to some of the scrambles

We retraced our steps to the village and found a small cafe bar. Moureze is a peaceful little village centred around the 12th century Gothic church of Sainte Marie. There is the ruin of a castle at the top of a rock above the village but I couldn’t get to it. I think that access is across private land. The village has a couple of cafe bars (one has crepes on it’s menu), a couple of small craft shops, an antique shop and an interesting little cemetery which has been designated a Commonwealth War Cemetery because it is the last resting place of a young Captain Peter Seymour Fowler who was murdered by the German SS in August 1944.

We enjoyed our drink, had a quick wander around the village and then returned to the Van. We had a long drive ahead of us to Montrejeau where I stayed almost 5 years ago.

Pezenas (Occitaine), France August 2022

Pezenas was one of the first towns in France to be protected as a historic monument. It also one of the most beautiful towns in the Languedoc Roussillon area and, without a doubt, one of my favourite towns in France.

Situated between Beziers and Montpelier, Pezenas is a small town of some 9,000 inhabitants but it has a sizeable and almost wholly pedestrianised medieval centre. It is a great place to explore.

We were parked at Camping Castelsec, a pleasant municipal campsite within easy walking distance of the old centre. It took no more than 15 minutes to walk to the town and my route brought me on to a wide avenue, the Cours Jean Joures, near the Place de la Republique. One side of the Cours Jean Joures backs on to the old town.

The buildings on this avenue are for the most part large houses; some may even qualify as mansions or ‘Hotels Particuliers’ as they are referred to in Pezenas. I walked the length of the avenue to Place Ledru Rollin where there is a gateway into the old town. What a find! It’s a maze of narrow winding streets and alleys. Almost all of the buildings in this warren are constructed of the same attractive honey coloured stone but they come in all shapes and sizes and no two buildings or even two doors are the same. It is enchanting. I spent hours wandering and marvelling at the place.

The old town is a real mix of different commercial and residential buildings; many with unique features, be they ornaments or carvings or simply special window dressings and, as often as not, the real curios are to be found up on high. You need eyes in the top of your head if you want to see everything in Pezenas.

One building on Rue Alfred Sabatier has a statue of Saint Roch carved into an upper corner. Quite why there should be such a statue on this particular house, I don’t know. Saint Roch is, among other things, the Patron Saint of Dogs. It is said he contracted the plague whilst helping others with the disease and was then shunned and would have died except; a dog brought him bread every day and licked his wounds until he recovered. Because of this, Saint Roch is often depicted with a dog by his side and pointing at a lesion (caused by the plague) on his thigh.

The town is home to a wide range of craftsmen; those working with iron or wood being particularly prevalent and; as a result, there are plenty of unusual art and craft shops in evidence throughout the old town (and some fabulous window displays). You could spend a lot of money here.

The town’s population swelled in 1298 with the arrival of a number of Jewish refugees from Spain, Portugal and Italy and this influx added to the range of craftsmen in the town as silversmiths and jewellers figured prominently amongst them. The Jewish population was to prosper in Pezenas for the next 100 years, most living in either Rue Juiverie or Rue des Litanies (which, it is said, had been reserved for them) until 1394 when the French King Charles VI decreed that all Jews should be expelled from France. As a consequence of this action the area of the town which comprises Rue Juiverie and Rue des Litanies is now referred to as the Jewish Ghetto but it is most unlikely it was deemed a ghetto at the time. It now contains a few artisan shops and bijou restaurants and is as integral a part of the old town as it ever was.

Pezenas’ most famous “adopted” son is Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, France’s 17th century answer to our very own William Shakespeare. Moliere lived in Pezenas for a while (some say up to four years) and he is wholly revered. Everywhere you go in the town there are references to Moliere – there are shops, restaurants and hotels named after him. There is a monument and museum dedicated to him. The town has even retrieved the chair that Moliere is said to have sat on outside his barber friend’s salon. The list goes on and on.

To my mind, however, the most striking memorial to Moliere is the Monument carved from Carrara Marble on the Avenue Francois Hue. It takes the form of a bust of Moliere and two other more complete figures; the first being a female character, Lucette, from his comedy “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac” and the second being what looks like a satyr. It is presumed that Lucette was included in the monument because the character makes frequent positive remarks about Pezenas. One can only assume the satyr relates to the more exotic or licentious behaviour that supposedly characterised Moliere.

I could go on about Pezenas for a while yet but it will suffice to say that we liked the place so much we decided to stay on an extra day. These extensions are becoming a feature of this particular tour.

The second day was more about eating and drinking in the town and again we were blessed. On this our second night in Pezenas we stumbled upon a Grand Wine Festival on the Cours Jean Joures (Les Estivales de Pezenas). Every Monday, the local wine producers set up stalls along the length of the avenue. You buy a wine glass and off you go tasting the different local wines. The town provides tables and chairs (benches) and there are a handful of food stalls – I saw one serving oysters! That is a great way to spend a Monday night and it looked as if the town’s whole population thinks so too because the place was teeming with people.

We couldn’t make a full night of it at the festival. I had booked us into a highly recommended restaurant called “Le Duplex de la Maman des Poissons” on Rue Conti but, once again, what a result! We had a marvellous evening.

We sat outside the front of the restaurant near an interesting couple from North Yorkshire and we got to talking (and sharing some Picpoul de Pinet) and, I for one, enjoyed the best tapas I have ever had outside of Logrono. Moreover, the couple we met told us about a place they had visited earlier in the week that we decided, there and then, should be our next destination – Cirque de Moureze. If Vanya hadn’t drunk quite so much Picpoul or, had paid a little more attention to what they had said about the Cirque de Mourez or, looked more closely at their photos, she may not have been so keen. lol.

I loved our time in Pezenas and look forward to returning. My only regret is that we weren’t there for the Saturday morning market which I understand is one of the largest and best in the region.

Next time!

Villeneuve les Beziers (Languedoc Rousillion), France July 2021

Our current plan is to be in Spain for when Spain play Italy in the first of the two European Championships Semi-Finals. There was time therefore for one more overnight stay in France before we crossed the border. We settled on the small town of Villeneuve les Beziers which sits on the Canal du Midi and is within walking distance (4.5 miles) of Beziers.

I didn’t know it at the time but the drive south would take us over the 2.4 km Millau Viaduct which spans the Tarn Valley. Designed by Norman Foster and completed in 2004 it was, and perhaps still is, the tallest bridge tower in the world at over 1100 feet and it has the highest road bridge deck in Europe at 890 feet. It’s an incredible feat of engineering and quite beautiful although Vanya wasn’t in the least impressed as we drove over it – that is her acrophobia at work again.

Shortly after crossing the viaduct and with the weather still bad, but getting brighter all the time, we pulled off the motorway at Clermont L’Herault with a view to having lunch at one of two nearby beauty spots; either the Cirque de Moureze (with it’s strange rock formations) or the supposedly pretty Lac de Salagou, whichever we reached first.

Clermont l’Herault itself is a really quite unremarkable little town but from there Lac de Salagou was well signposted. Lac de Salagou was not that much more interesting and is best remembered for the unbelievably loud noise made by the cicadas (cigales in French) as the rain finally ceased and the sun came through. Honestly the sound was almost deafening. The other thing about the place is the strange red soil in the area which days later is still coating the Van.

We reached Villeneuve les Beziers soon enough and the sun was still shining as we parked up in a small campsite, Les Berges du Canal, which sits right on the Canal du Midi. The Canal is another engineering marvel stretching as it does some 240 kilometres from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. It was built during the reign of Louis XIV (between 1667 and 1681) and connects the River Garonne to the Etang de Thau thus enabling canal boats to travel all the way from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Many of those canal boats have since been converted into really comfortable living accommodation…

Villeneuve les Beziers has a very pretty and surprisingly large old town. The 1oth century church of St Stephen is surrounded by narrow streets and lanes which in all likelihood haven’t changed much since the French Revolution. We had just missed the town’s annual Latin Festival with it’s concerts and salsa and flamenco dancing but were happy enough to simply wander the old town and stop for drinks in a local backstreet bar.

After exploring Villeneuve I left the dogs with Vanya and set off westwards along the Canal to Beziers which is, I am told, the major tourist attraction in this region. There was never going to be time for me to see all that much of Beziers but, sad person that I am, I was delighted to stumble upon the Beziers Aqueduct which takes the Canal du Midi over the River Orb. Another fine piece of engineering but also visually impressive with it’s arcaded walkways under the canal itself. Unfortunately, those walkways are closed to the public but one can walk the tow paths at the top. The aqueduct took 4 years to build and was completed in 1858 but the Chief Engineer died a few weeks beforehand and it had to be finished by his son.

The view from the aqueduct over Beziers and towards the Cathedral of Saint Nazaire is impressive. The cathedral is unusual in that it looks more like a castle than a church. It was built that way to impress upon the Cathars the might and power of Catholic Rome – not that there would have been many Cathars left in Beziers after the 1209 massacre which initiated the Albigensian Crusade.

By the time I got back to Villeneuve I was ready for a few beers (the round trip amounted to some 12 miles of walking) and Vanya and I found a real local’s bar where we enjoyed the cheapest beers of the tour so far.

Dinner followed at a fine restaurant on the canal front, with the restaurant owners once again being very accommodating so far as our dogs were concerned. We ordered a mixed tapas followed by a particularly salty pizza (far too many anchovies for me) to share. The tapas were great except for one dish, which I thought were mushrooms but proved to be duck hearts – uugghh!!

Canet de Salars (Occitaine), France July 2021

Canet de Salars is a small commune in the Aveyron department of Occitanie just 90 miles south east of Rocamador. Vanya chose the place on the strength of a supposedly good campsite, Camping Le Caussanel, which sits on the banks of the Lac de Paraloup. The idea was to move south east instead of south west because the weather forecast was slightly more promising in the east but, most important, the campsite looked a good place for us to watch the European Championship Quarter Final match between England and Ukraine.

We arrived at the campsite early afternoon even after a prolonged stop at one of the motorway service stations where we had tucked into a selection of French Cheeses bought at a huge Leclerc Supermarket earlier in the day. Whereas last year was very much about sampling Cremant wines, this year it is about French cheeses. Today’s unanimous winner from a selection of Savoie cheeses was Reblechon, a semi-soft mountain cheese made from unpasteurised cow’s milk and best eaten with nuts or dried fruit. It is also the principal ingredient in a Tartiflette which skiers in the French Alps will be well familiar with (or so Vanya tells me).

Reblechon

Most of the afternoon was spent spoiling the dogs. We had the campsite pretty much to ourselves and could indulge them without putting on other residents.

As for the football… what a result! England 4, Ukraine 0 with Raheem Sterling once again the man of the match and England now into a semi-final match against Denmark. We’ll sleep well tonight but it is going to be an early start in the morning. We have decided upon just one more stop in France before crossing the border into Spain. The weather in France is still not great and we both want to be in Spain when the first semi-final, Spain v Italy, is played.