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It was with very mixed feelings that I set off, once again, for Montpellier on 14 May. On the one hand, I really wanted to get my teeth into helping Kate and Bret with all the work at the house but on the other, I was delighted to be returning to a place I’ve come to love. I felt like a really old hand taking the train trip from St Pancras to Montpellier via Lille as I had last year. Sadly, I arrived to rain so caught the tram rather than walking all the way to the apartment. This year I’d chosen a larger apartment with a double bedroom as well as the sitting/dining room which doubled for a twin bedroom at night. I was expecting more visitors so needed the space.

On my first evening, I was invited to a concert of tango music by Marc, a friend I’d met the previous year. It was very different and a very enjoyable way to slide back into the local scene. Two days later, I bought a gavroche (a rather smart peaked beret) and watched some basketball in Place de la Comédie. The sun was blazing down and, unlike its rather dismal absence last year remained out for the whole month with a fairly steady temperature of 32˚.

Two lots of friends each wrote to say that, for reasons outside their control, they couldn’t join me. So I had an unexpected fortnight on my own. For a few years now I’d been lamenting the fact that there was never time to finish writing my book – ‘It’s your thoughts that count’ – so I decided that this enforced solitude had to have come for a reason. For two weeks I spent the mornings basking in beautiful sunshine on my balcony, contemplating, dreaming, drinking coffee and writing notes! I realised that I’d never given myself this sort of ‘thinking’ time before and it brought heaps of excellent ideas to mind. In the afternoons I wrote, interspersed with watching selected tennis matches being played at the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris. What a life!

And so the days passed very happily. Each day I strolled down into the city. I marvelled at the divine offerings in the window of a pâtisserie.

I visited the Bank, in the town square.

I went to a Rotary meeting, where the cuisine was exquisite and not a little different from what we experience at Rotary dinners in New Zealand!

And I enjoyed as many conversations as I could. How I love France!

In the midst of all my writing, my friend of last year, Jacqueline, invited me to spend the day with her and her friend, Marie, at La Grande Motte. They took me o visit a small fishing village nearby called le Grau du Roi, which was teeming with activity.

Then we went to have lunch in a pailotte (sort of permanent marquee) on the edge of the ocean.

Both the lunch and the environment were out of this world and the conversation was, of course, extremely stimulating!

What a lovely day spent in the company of charming and intelligent French women.

And then, in the nick of time, just before I left France on 24 June, I felt able to write ‘The End’ and put my book away. When I get back to New Zealand I can think about the next steps to take to get it published.

Suzi flew into Montpellier on 30 May. It’s so easy to get from the airport to the apartment that I met her and we travelled on the airport bus together. We walked home slowly through the city and enjoyed a coffee while we watched the world go by.

We left Montpellier early the next morning in lovely sunshine and very light clothing. The journey to Carcassonne is about three hours on the train and the skies became more and more grey until it began to rain. We just had time to rush into a café within the walled city when the heavens opened and it hosed down. Coffee lasted for about an hour until the clouds passed over and we could emerge safely and begin to enjoy our day.

Carcassonne lies at the heart of the Toulouse-Montpellier-Barcelona triangle, at the crossroads of two major highways, and dates back to time immemorial, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and the Cevennes to the Pyrenees where the river Aude springs from. Twenty centuries of history have led to this well-known gem being listed as a World Heritage site.

Carcassonne has a population of about 46,000 and is in the western part of Languedoc-Roussillon.

The 12th century walled Cité de Carcassonne is dominated by the feudal castle of the Trenvencal family. They practised Catharsism, a religion based on dualism, to the detriment of a decadent Catholicism. But the young Roger Trencavel (1194-1209) felt the first shock of the Crusade against the Cathars pursued by Pope Innocent III. The end came on 15 August 1209 after 15 days of siege.

The Cité and the fief of the Trencavels were given to the military leader of the Crusades, Simon de Montfort. His son, unable to rule the lands, gave up all his interests in Languedoc to King Louis VIII in 1224 who strengthened its defences.

The castle dominates the surrounding countryside for miles in every direction.

Right in the centre of the old Cité is this enormous amphitheatre, situated below the Basilica, which is a beautiful and imposing building.

The Cité streets themselves, are buzzing with people.

With the weather clearing, it was time to walk back down to the station and return to Montpellier.

On 2 June, Suzi and I decided to explore Pont du Gard and Nîmes.

Without a car, the only way to reach the Pont du Gard, is to take a train to Nîmes and a bus from there. This was easy but took longer than it would have done by car. The Pont du Gard is part of the Roman aqueduct of Nîmes.

It is a demonstration of Roman technical skills and features on the World Heritage list. It’s the finest and best-preserved part of the aquaduct built to convey water from a spring, the source of the Eure, near Uzès to Nîmes and did so until the 6th century. The water crosses the river Gardon at the amazing height of 48 2metres.

Work on the Pont started in AD 38 and was completed in AD52. A thousand men worked on the site, using more than 50,000 tonnes of stone. During the middle ages, the aqueduct was partially destroyed when its stones were taken and reused in other constructions.

Today, traces of the aqueduct remain along its route. In the Museum on site some of the original objects, reproductions, images, sound and reconstitution are displayed in an area of 2,500 square metres. It’s possible to go to the heart of a full-scale reproduction of the aqueduct construction works and to go inside a Roman villa and discover the atmosphere of the thermal (baths).

We only had a little part of the day left to explore the outskirts of Nîmes. I’d been here with Julie on 27 May 2008 (see the post about halfway down the page) and still loved revisiting the beautiful Church of Sainte Perpetué and enjoyed the 3D film showing at the Maison Carrée.

Outside the Maison Carrée, there’s an inscription deciphered in 1758 by the Nîmes scholar, Jean François Séguier, which says that the temple was dedicated to the grandsons and adopted sons, the Princes of Youth, of Emperor Augustus. With porticos along its sides, it stands in a raised position dominating the forum, the centre of public life in the Roman town. The square was refurbished in 1992 by Lord Norman Foster, the architect of Carré d’Art.

On 4 June, Suzi and I took the train again, this time bound for Béziers. It was a lovely warm early morning and quite a long walk from the station to our first destination, Les 7 Écluses de Fonséranes. These seven locks are all built all in one place to enable the Canal du Midi to climb the Fonséranes hill. The Canal du Midi is a 240km ribbon of water linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic canal and running from Toulouse in the west, to Sète on the Mediterranean. The engineering genius who built the canal, Paul Riquet, was born here. The first stone was laid in 1667 and the canal was opened for navigation in 1681 when, even then, it was always more than a waterborne highway. It took 15 years to build by 12,000 workers, 600 of whom were women. 45,000 trees and shrubs were planted along its banks. The Romans first dreamed of linking the two seas, but in the end it was Paul Riquet from Béziers who managed to realise their ambition. Today the Canal du Midi has two principal activities, to irrigate 300 million cubic metres of land each year and to provide a location for 400 houseboats and river transport for heaps more as a tourist activity. 8,200 boats pass through the locks at Fonséranes each year.

From here we walked past the beautiful Eglise Sainte Jacques.

On the top of Saint James’ hill, this church outside the walls is near the Roman amphitheatre. It’s not known when the original
church was built but it was first mentioned in 908. Nothing remains of the 10th Century church, however. We admired the five-section East end with its strange stone lacework from the garden around the church, which also has a magnificent view of the cathedral and the Béziers plain. Inside the church, the 12th Century half-dome apse is a perfect example of Romanesque architecture. This magnificent building has recently been restored, revealing a hitherto little known, but glorious example of medieval Romanesque art.

It was a long walk to the majestic St Nazaire Cathedral, standing above 1the River Orb, by which time we were sorely in need to a sit-down and a lovely cup of coffee!

Béziers, protected by its cathedral/fortress, is a jewel with many different facets. It has 6,500 years of history. Roman Béziers was one of the oldest towns on the Mediterranean. Cathar Béziers fought the Crusaders. The typical postcard image of Béziers, Saint Nazaire Cathedral was also witness to the Cathar tragedy. The cathedral was first mentioned in the 8th Century. In 1130, the master-builder Gervais built a Romanesque church of which little is left today. In fact, it was burned down on 22 July 1209 as part of the Crusade against the Albigensians. It was said that the cathedral “split in half like a pomegranate”. Rebuilt between the 13th and 15th Centuries, it is still a superb example of southern Gothic architecture with magnificent frescoes, a fascinating organ case, and other interesting items. In many ways, it’s a repository of the town’s history and is also an invitation to come for a peaceful stroll or just to rest. The cloisters and the Bishop’s garden are cool havens of peace on the hottest day. These are magical 9places, hidden from public view, which is typical of Béziers, but only to best preserve the atmosphere for those who choose to visit.

Leaving the Cathedral and walking on into the city, we came across Saint Madeleine’s Church, which has also suffered during violent episodes in the town’s history.

Though closely surrounded by buildings, Saint Madeleine’s Church has retained aspects of its Romanesque origin in spite of some rebuilding. Today it stands in a peaceful Italian-style square, but it was a consular parish church until the French Revolution. Not only was Raymond de Trencavel assassinated in the church in 1167, but one of the worst massacres of the Cathar Crusades took place here. When the townspeople sought refuge in the church on the arrival of the Crusaders, the Papal Legate ordered them all to be burnt, saying “Kill them all! God will recognise His own”. Everyone perished.

Béziers contains beautiful private mansions, with gemel bays and Gothic windows and the opulent parts date from the town’s 19th century golden age with its wide avenues, particularly Allées Paul Riquet, which sports the statue of Paul Riquet, just one of its heroes.

At the top of Allées Paul Riquet stands The Municipal Theatre, a practically unique example in France of the XIXth century “bonbonnieres” theatre.

Leaving this behind us, we passed a couple of typical French gendarmes and came across a wonderful market stall selling home-made marzipan fruits from Les Jardins de Morganes, named by the stallholder after 10his ‘beautiful daughter’.

Suzi couldn’t resist tasting a mushroom!

At the bottom of the Allées, is the Plateau des Poètes, a park set out over five hectares in the ‘jardin à l’anglaise’ style and 8created in 1865. It is an inviting place for those who want to take the time to appreciate nature’s gentle pace. The plateau was classed as a historic site in 1995. The park contains lovely restful gardens and fountains and boasts the magnificent statue to its glorious dead and to all the architects of the victory in the first and second world wars. This statue is on the opposite side of the road to the railway station.

And so we caught the train back to Montpellier and hopped off at Narbonne. The station at Narbonne is quite a way from the city centre and, without any real idea what we were looking for, we wandered a bit aimlessly and didn’t appreciate much of what this city has to offer, as I found out on a later visit with a French guide.

We learned that Narbonne was established in 118 BC, as Colonia Narbo Martius. It was located on the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul, built at the time of the foundation of the colony, and connecting Italy to Spain. A part of the Via Domitia has been excavated in the Hotel de Ville Square. It’s a relic of the first major Roman way laid down in Gaulle in 120 BC. The remains visible here were discovered on 7 February 1997 during works in the Square.

Geographically, Narbonne was therefore located at a very important crossroads because it was situated where the Via Domitia connected to the Via Aquitania, which led towards the Atlantic across Toulouse and Bordeaux. In addition, it is also crossed by the Aude River. Surviving members of Julius Caesar’s Legio X Equestris were given lands in the area.

Politically, Narbonne gained importance as a competitor to Marseille. Julius Caesar settled veterans from his 10th Legion there and attempted to develop its port while Marseille was revolting against Roman control. Seat of a powerful administration, the city enjoyed economic and architectural expansion.

Narbonne fell into a slow decline in the 14th Century, for a variety of reasons. One was due to a change in the course of the Aude River, which caused increased silting of the navigational access. The Romans improved the navigability of the river by building a dam near Salelles and also by canalising the river as it passed through its marshy delta to the sea (then as now the canal was known as the Robine).

Other causes of decline were the plague and the raid by the Black Prince which caused much devastation but it’s evident that the growth of other ports was also a factor. Evidence of Narbonne’s sudden and dramatic change of fortunes is quite stark when one sees 5at the rear of the cathedral the enormously ambitious building programme frozen in time through lack of funds and decline in national political and ecclesiastical importance.

Built in 1272, the gothic Cathedral Saint-Just and Saint Pasteur was never finished and only comprises the chancel. This imposing building and its superb vaults of over 41 metres in height, is one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the south of France. The Treasure located in the so-called acoustic or capitulary room is one of the ten richest in France.

From the sixteenth century, anxious to maintain a link to important trade, the people of Narbonne began costly work to the vestiges of the Aude River’s access to the sea so that it would remain navigable to a limited draft vessel and also serve as a link with the Royal Canal. This major undertaking of works finished with the construction of the Canal de la Robine, which was finally linked with the Canal du Midi (then known as the Royal Canal) via the Canal de Jonction in 1776. In the 19th century, the canal system in the south of France came into competition with an expanding rail network, but kept some importance due to the flourishing wine trade. Hence, despite its decline from Roman times, Narbonne managed to hold on to its vital but limited importance as a trading route, particularly in the more recent centuries.

Suzi and I travelled around the City in a little train, just to get our bearings. When we came back from the trip we found some filming going on in the Hotel de Ville Square and were able to catch a couple of knights preparing to invade the Cathedral.

We’d had a very long day in two locations and were very glad to take a train back to Montpellier and to catch a little bit of the highlights of the French Open at Roland Garros before going to bed!

On the northeast of the City on the side of a hill stands the Amazonian Greenhouse which contains a very special jungle. Suzi and I decided to go there on 5 June.

Opened in June 2007, the Amazonian Greenhouse is a reproduction of the real thing in the Montpellier Zoo, and is home to more than 500 different animals of 61 species, luxuriant vegetation and all kinds of creepy crawlies. We admired a variety of birds flying freely in a vast 17-metre enclosure, got very close to a crocodile, an Occelate River Sting Ray, a Green Iguana, an anaconda and, after a very long wait, were delighted to see the giant anteater emerge from its cave.

We hadn’t realised that the Zoo was so far outside the city and at the top of such a steep hill. We’d hired bicycles for the day and it was quite a ride. It was excellent to go downhill most of the way home and to watch Federer win the semi-finals of the French Open. He faces Soderling on Sunday.

Never one to sit around, Suzi decided on 6 June that we’d cycle to Maguelone

It sounded, for me, like an enormous distance, there and back, on a bike. But it’s nearly all flat, and the cycle tracks are absolutely excellent. We set off in lovely weather. It’s actually only 11km from Montpellier to the ocean, but Maguelone is then about another 4km west. The journey along beside the sea is, however, very lovely.

I’d been here in May the previous year and it was well worth another visit. This is what the Abbey looked like in ancient times.

This time we hired an audio guide and learned a great deal more about the history. The site is situated four kilometers west of Palavas between the sea and lagoons on a small rise surrounded by vines.

The earliest settlements on this site date from before Roman times. The 11th Century saw the building of the monastery that merited being called the second church of Rome.

From the 13th Century, however, the power and influence of Maguelone declined and after the bishop’s seat was transferred to Montpellier in 1536, the site was gradually abandoned. In the 19th-century restoration work began and now a major part of the ancient cathedral is open to the public. This beautiful window is one of its newer additions.

After the heat outside, it offered us a peaceful haven. We enjoyed its tranquility. Then we started for home. Lagging somewhat, my view of Suzi was usually from behind. The ride itself was good exercise, and we’d had a lovely holiday together. I thought I might now spend a couple of days in recovery mode before my next visitors arrived.

My very good friends from Broxbourne bridge days, Amanda and John travel from Hertfordshire to France every single year to ride their bicycles and play bridge. They stayed from 10-13 June. Their bicycles are state of the art and they’ve even bought exactly the right car so that they can fit in both bicycles and all the paraphernalia that goes with them. Amanda hadn’t appreciated just how hot it was going to be and it was certainly a good deal hotter than it had been the previous year with temperatures most days reaching 32º.

We didn’t spend all the time together because they wanted to do some serious cycle rides on interesting tracks and they also wanted to play bridge as often as possible. So, on their first night, we went to a bridge club that I’d researched before their arrival. It was only a short walk from the apartment and they knew we were coming. Amanda and John are very, very good. So good, in fact, that they actually teach bridge to others.

I’m a very ordinary player and I’d asked if I could have a patient and understanding partner who’d understand if I made mistakes. I was introduced to Alain. He explained the system that they play in France (which is different in several respects to anything I’d ever played before so I knew I was going to have a hard time remembering the differences). However, he seemed charming and for about the first seven hands, everything went well.

And then I made a mistake with my bidding. I was the one playing the cards and made about three fewer tricks than we’d said we’d make (this explanation is for non-bridge players so I’m avoiding jargon).

He was angry. In fairly fast, firm French, he told me what I should have done. Suitably chastised, but feeling a little nervous, I approached the bidding for the next hand. This time I underbid my hand.

When we made several more tricks than we’d said we’d make, I got another lecture. This time the French was faster, firmer and I noticed that his skin tone was deepening! I told him I was really sorry – desolée in fact.

Suffice it to say that with each hand I became more and more nervous and consequently made more and more mistakes. In the end, he was actually almost shouting at me. Almost in tears, I actually stopped him in his tracks after one hand and said that, if he’d ‘returned my lead’ (it was a contract without trumps) we’d actually have got the opposition into great difficulty and they’d probably have made four tricks fewer than they’d bid. He paused in mid tirade, swallowed, looked down and told me that he was, in fact, desolé.

Somewhat vindicated, I soldiered on but the damage was done and I couldn’t wait for the evening to end. After the last hand, Alain left the table without a word and I actually thought he’d gone home. I found out later that he’d gone to check out the scores.

The President of the Club came over to me and asked how I’d enjoyed my evening. I told him that I was afraid that my partner was very disappointed with me and he gave me a rueful smile. ‘I was surprised‘, he said ‘when I saw who’d they’d given you to play with. Alain is very competitive and lives on his nerves. He likes to win and there were some French national players in the room tonight.’

Amanda and John came over too. They’d had a lovely evening and had, in fact, come second north/south. I asked if they had any idea where Alain and I had come, playing east/west. When I’d been told that we were in the middle of the field (not at the bottom as I’d been sure had to be the case) I was only a little relieved.

However, when Alain reappeared to thank me for playing with him and to say goodnight, I held my head high (I must have done something right) but secretly resolved never to play bridge in France again. It’s hard enough understanding a new system, let alone doing it all in French. However, Amanda and John told me that this was a total aberration and very wrong of him and I should give it one more go. Perhaps one day ...

Meanwhile, the next day we set off for a bike ride to Carnon. We went on a little tiki tour through the City first, with Amanda and John pushing their bikes.

Montpellier’s centre is always bustling with different activities. On this occasion, there were stilt walkers and clowns in abundance.

Some of the 'ostriches' were laying eggs while others caught them in a net, and the children lapped up everything.

I picked up a bike for the day and off we went. With their super light racing bikes, Amanda and John were able to pedal half as fast as I did but get twice as far, so I was very glad to lie on the beach at Carnon before the ride home again. John went for a long swim and Amanda sat in the shade and read a book. It was a lovely peaceful day.

The next day Amanda and John took their bikes on the train to Béziers and Sete for the day. They had a lovely time but they were very hot and tired by the time they got home again. Meanwhile, I’d done some more book writing and we had a lovely dinner and evening together.

On Friday, 12 June, I deserted Amanda and John because I’d had an invitation to spend a long weekend based at Narbonne Plage with the very kind Frenchman I’d met the previous year and with whom I’d gone to the concert of tango music on my first day. He’d told me that he’d show me the area surrounding Narbonne Plage and it’d be a great opportunity to immerse myself into all things French. It was.S o, Amanda and John went off cycling again and then stayed on in the apartment without me until Saturday when they left for another bridge venue, further north where it was a little cooler. It had been lovely to have them as visitors.

And in the afternoon, Marc picked me up and we started what was, for me, a fabulous adventure. First of all, we stopped off in Narbonne where he had some business to attend to. So I had the opportunity to spend a bit more time in the beautiful Cathedral.

I discovered this time that the building of the Cathedral started in 1272. It replaced three churches which were more or less on the same site. A 5basilica dating from the time of Constantine, a Roman basilica, and a cathedral of the Carolingian period. It was consecrated in 1587 by the archbishop of Narbonne and dedicated to the martyrs of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur.

Narbonne Cathedral is one of the most notable gothic monuments of the 13th and 14th centuries. Only the choir is complete. It’s difficult to photograph it from the outside because other surrounding buildings are so close, but what one can see is beautiful, both inside and out.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to finish it in the 16th and 18th centuries. It’s deservedly described as imposing. Only the choir has been completed, with majestic dimensions – 48m wide and 55m long – with 131 seats (that’s much larger than a croquet lawn!). The arches rise to 40m inside, only surpassed by the cathedrals of Beauvais (48m), Amiens (42m) and Metz (41m). Looking up is enough to give one a serious crick in the neck. The exterior tower is 72m high.

The main altar’s imposing canopy is supported by 6 Corinthian columns made of pink marble from Caune in the Aude and was built in 1694.

On 2 October 1721, a fire destroyed the choir stalls, some tapestries and an organ dating from the beginning of the 15th Century. The present instrument, which was completed in 1741, has 68 stops.

The treasures of Narbonne’s ancient Cathedral are also amazing, making it one of France’s ten richest Cathedrals. They’re displayed in the new chapter room.

In some ways, it’s like the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where – as with any dome – a whisper against its wall at any point is audible to a listener with an ear held to the wall at any other point around the gallery.

But here at Narbonne, it’s different. The brick, ellipsoidal cupola of this square-shaped room gives it a remarkable quality. A person sitting in one corner of the room and facing the wall can speak in a very low voice and be heard distinctly by the person sitting in the opposite corner. However, anyone sitting elsewhere in the room hears nothing.

Tearing myself away from the calm peace of the Cathedral’s interior, I caught up with Marc and he drove us to Narbonne Plage.

It was rather like being on a mystery weekend because, although he told me some of the things he had planned, I had very little idea of the geography of the area so everything turned out to be a lovely surprise.

With my customary need for planning and certainty, it was a rare treat to sit back and take things as they came – a novel experience for me! It actually turned out to be perfect in every way, going from surprise to surprise.

Marc’s two-bedroomed first floor apartment on the beach is like a New Zealand bach.

It’s furnished and decorated like a bach and has everything one could want or need. A huge bay window in the main room looks out onto the Mediterranean with a lovely balcony outside where one can watch the people passing by and relax late at night after coming home from a party. Or simply enjoy breakfast. When it’s unoccupied, large shutters are brought down over all the windows to protect it from the sun, wind, sea and, I suppose, burglars.

Marc rang one of his very good friends because he hoped they’d be able to catch up and he particularly wanted to show me the area where he lived.

Marc’s friend, Christophe invited us up to his beautiful vineyard for dinner and chats. Vineyards hold special interest for Marc because he’s the Editor of Vins de Terre and is very, very knowledgeable on the subject of wine.

Christophe’s vineyard is in Pechredon, a tiny area at the very top of a small mountain called La Clape, standing back from the ocean like a large, craggy hat.

Despite its rugged and wild appearance, it’s a fragile environment with a special microclimate. It’s swept on the one hand by the Cers, the dry north wind, and on the other, by the Marin that billows salty mists in off the sea. La Clape has been inhabited since prehistoric times and there are still traces of Neolithic settlements. The Romans later built splendid villas here because they considered the heights to be a privileged, healthy spot compared to the coast which was, at that time, infested with mosquitoes.

The wines of La Clape boast a lineage going back to 600 BC. Christophe has personally been growing vines here for twenty years and said that he was only just beginning to appreciate the true essence of what the land has to offer. He brought three wines out of his cellar for dinner and the first, in particular, was truly magnificent. It was fascinating to watch these two connoisseurs smelling and tasting and discussing what they could discern, not only from the grapes themselves, but also from the land, the rock below and the vegetation growing on all sides.

Our lovely meal consisted of a bowl of anchovies, then barbecued sausage with French bread, followed by barbecued steaks, all finished off with melon and accompanied by the wine that had come from the vines all around us. We sat outside under the stars and Marc and Christophe enjoyed some lovely conversations, mostly, of course, about wine and things connected with wine. Back at the apartment, it wasn’t hard to appreciate the beautiful environment, with the moon reflected in the ocean and a multitude of stars.

And nothing changed overnight. When I woke on Saturday morning there wasn’t a breath of wind and the ocean looked like glass. It was early and only the tractor grooming the sand was moving so we walked west down the beach until we left the houses on the beachfront behind us and could look up at an uninterrupted view of La Clape towering above us. Then we turned to the water and marvelled at its clarity. We were able to see the sandy bottom even when we were nearly submerged. It wasn’t too cold and it was certainly exhilarating.

But we couldn’t stay in the water for too long because Marc told me that we were expected almost next door to watch the French v New Zealand first rugby test in Dunedin and, after spending a little too long in the sea, we were running late and did, in fact, miss both the anthems! Henri and Chantal and their very beautiful daughter, Marine, live in their beachfront home permanently. Henri teaches physical education at university (and has a great body with amazing shoulders and slim hips) and Chantal has a women’s dress shop. Marine is studying for her school leaving certificate or baccalauréat – French written and oral this year and the rest next.

Their TV was situated in a large, curtained room on the ground floor and the rest of the house is lived in! They’d invited another friend round, so I was seriously outnumbered, three to one! Marc had suggested that I dress in all black, which I did, but following the French victory 27-22 – I hurried home to change into all-white before we went out for the rest of the day!

It was tremendous fun to be watching the test with three Frenchmen with a French commentary and although I was disappointed that we lost, they didn’t rub their win in too badly and were perfect gentlemen! It was interesting to read what Mils Muliaina had to say in the French papers the next day – which Marc kindly went out and bought especially to show me! – that the All Blacks had put themselves under tremendous pressure. How right he was! Watching all the handling errors, even from experienced players like Ma’a Nonu, was excruciating.

So, dressed now in white, Marc drove us to what he described as his favourite place, and where he hoped, one day, to live – Peyriac de Mer where we’d been invited to visit the cellar of two of his friends, Hugo and Sheila. Lunch had been organised with quite a number of his other friends, which we enjoyed in a restaurant under the yellow awning beneath the town clock tower.

Two of Marc’s friends at the lovely lunch were Jon and Liz and, lunch over, they invited us to their home to taste yet more wine and visit some of their vineyards. They’ve worked in wineries in all four corners of the world before choosing this small corner of the Corbières to launch their own venture, Domaine Sainte Croix. Jon is a trained oenologist (people who manage wine production) and saw the potential in his parcels of land to create wines of power, finesse and style. So we set off for Fraïssé des Corbières, which lies half way between Narbonne and Perpignan.

The vineyards of this whole region produce an average of 74 million bottles of wine each year, predominantly red. The area chosen by Jon and Liz has a great reputation for its Grenache Noir and Carignan Noir based wines and many of the vines are over 100 years old.

Because of its size and geography, the Corbières region encompasses an enormous variety of soil types and microclimates. Wines from this region tend to be very varied. The region experiences widely varied winds. The dry, Atlantic wind, Cers, frequently brings cold weather from the north west while the area is normally under the influence of the warm, Mediterranean wind, Marin, because of its position just inland from the coastal ranges. John and Liz showed us a few of their Saint Croix vines and, returning to their home, we spent much of the afternoon tasting some of the wines they’d just produced, spitting much of it out again. Otherwise we might not have been in a fit state to continue with the rest of the day.

And the day was far from over. We hurried back to the bach, changed and set off again, this time for Narbonne where Marc told me that we’d been invited to dinner with some of his friends. I imagined a discreet dinner with just a few friends and hoped that I’d be able to hold my own with the conversation. However, it was actually a large party! I have to admit that I was quite scared as Marc pushed me forward through the wrought iron garden entrance and I was confronted with masses of people, Marc’s age (much younger than me) who all seemed to know each other very well.

But I needn’t have worried. The French are amazingly hospitable and if this English/New Zealand person was a friend of their friend, Marc, then she was welcome. In true French style I was kissed on both cheeks by everyone and found it very easy to join in with the lovely, party atmosphere and enjoy these delightful and hospitable people. And, as for the food that our host produced and which Tracey and I enjoyed.

We didn’t get back to the bach until 2.30 a.m. It had been an amazingly wonderful day, full of French experiences, French people, French conversation and all great fun. I felt very lucky.

Sunday morning dawned cloudy so we didn’t swim but drove to Caunes Minervois, where there was an exhibition of marble that Marc was interested in seeing, sometimes produced in very novel ways.

This is a beautiful and delightful village. The houses are made of stone which is much the same colour and the colours of the window shutters are controlled by the Council. They can either be a pale turquoise or deep red which has the effect of making everything look very easy on the eye and not in the least bit regimented.

On one side of the village is the beautiful Abbey and we had our lunch under a canopy of branches in a big square.

Lunch over, we decided to visit the place where the marble was ‘mined’.

We took a tiny train up into the hills where an amazing guide regaled us with information. It was a bit like being on the set of an epic movie. The sheer sides of the marble rose all around us and the colours were magnificent. We were, of course, allowed to pick up little bits to take away with us and it was fun to find fragments of the most appealing colours and shapes and sizes.

The previous evening I’d met two of Marc’s friends, Christophe and Tracey. Marc told me that they’d been kind enough to invite us to their home near Bages and to take us out on Christophe’s motorboat.

I’d noticed Bages as we’d driven around the area a couple of days earlier and asked Marc to stop while I took a photo. I never imagined that we’d see it from the sea as well. It’s very beautiful from either side and it was such a pleasure to be taken for a ride and see the coastline from a different perspective.

Back on dry land we were in for yet another surprise. Tracey had anticipated our return and ordered pizza so we relaxed on their balcony for yet another delightful evening, this time with vin rosé, in the company of more of Marc’s very kind and generous friends.

I could hardly believe that so much had been packed into such a very short space of time and all too soon it was time to return to Montpellier so that Marc could get back to work. Tracey told me that it was very unusual for a French person to have extended an invitation to a stranger so I felt doubly lucky that I’d been permitted to experience such wonderful French hospitality and kindness.

Julie could only manage to come to Montpellier for a few days so we had to fill them as full as possible. She arrived on 19 June and we decided that we’d explore Béziers on bicycles so we caught the train and put our rented bicycles on board. It was lovely to follow the route that Suzi and I had taken on foot. The day had started out hot and sunny but another of those enormous rain clouds that had beset Suzi and me in Carcassonne came over and forced us into the café at Les 7 Écluses de Fonséranes, but not for too long.

Here we asked a bit more about the history of the place and found that the Canal du Midi was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The canal itself can be explored by those who love walking and cycling as well as boating.

We covered all the places Suzi and I had seen but managed to cover greater distances which was excellent. There was a different market in the Allées Paul Riquet, just as colourful and interesting, but without the marzipan.

Back to the station, we stopped off at Sète and decided that, as it was so small, we’d ride all the way around it. So we crossed the river by the station and set off up the hill to the high spot where the views were lovely.

All that riding made us thirsty so we had a coffee stop and watched the children playing on the rocks below us.

It was a beautiful day and good to get just enough exercise and see somewhere new.

Saturday 20 June was the day of the second rugby test between France and New Zealand. With no SKY at the apartment, we took ourselves to an Irish pub, Fitzpatrick’s, in the heart of the city at 9.30. We were the only English speaking people there but it was a great atmosphere and, on this occasion, New Zealand won narrowly.

With the rest of the day at our disposal, we took a bus out to the beach at Grand Travers, hired a couple of loungers and lazed in the sun with cool drinks and lovely music. Very decadent.

Even though this was the fourth time I’d visited Carcassonne, it was Julie’s first visit and the following day, we had a lovely time, and were luckier with the weather than Suzi and I had been. We learnt some more information about Carcassonne on this visit. The port of the Canal du Midi and the towers of the medieval city, the Bastide Saint Louis, is the historic name of Carcassonne’s town centre. This is where Carcassonne residents go for shopping and culture. Several times a week a colourful market with local produce enlivens Place Carnot overlooked by a huge marble fountain. We strolled around the Bastide Saint Louis and enjoyed its churches, museums and galleries as well as its attractive private mansions.

The little train was waiting to take people for a tour around but we decided we’d rather walk.

Every July 14, massive fireworks and illuminations surround the medieval city, attracting thousands of visitors from around the world. In the summer there are cultural festivals both in the Bastide and the medieval city. The recreation of medieval tournaments and jousting remind young and old alike of Carcassonne’s past. Events take place all year round, including a lively Spanish week at the end of August, a wine festival in autumn and of course, Christmas festivities.

We didn’t see it, but we understand that just a few kilometres from Carcassonne lies Lake Cavayere which is a great place for many leisure activities, including strolls on the well-marked paths. For those who enjoy golf, there’s apparently a fine 18-hole course situated between the Bastide and the medieval city.

We walked around the narrow lanes of La Cité and were enchanted by what seemed to be a genuine medieval town surrounded by 3 kilometres of ramparts and 52 towers as well as hotels, gift shops, leafy squares and many restaurants serving regional cuisine. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, La Cité is visited year-round by those who want to feel history come alive. It’s an exceptionally attractive place and it’s no wonder that this was my fourth visit.

As usual, the place was buzzing.

The following day we visited the Amazonian Zoo, wandered through the town and generally relaxed in the sun. It was a laid back and relaxing time for us both before the long journey back to England, Julie by plane and me on the train.

It was with very mixed feelings that I set off, once again, for Montpellier on 14 May. On the one hand, I really wanted to get my teeth into all the work at the house but on the other, I was delighted to be returning to a place I’ve come to love. I felt like a really old hand taking the train trip from St Pancras to Montpellier via Lille as I had last year. Sadly, I arrived to rain so caught the tram rather than walking all the way to the apartment. This year I’d chosen a larger apartment with a double bedroom as well as the sitting/dining room which doubled for a twin bedroom at night. I was expecting more visitors so needed the space.

On my first evening I was invited to a concert of tango music by Marc, a friend I’d met the previous year. It was very different and a very enjoyable way to slide back into the local scene. Two days later, I bought a gavroche (a rather smart peaked beret) and watched some basketball in Place de la Comédie. The sun was blazing down and, unlike its rather dismal absence last year, remained out for the whole month with a fairly steady temperature of 32˚.

Two lots of friends each wrote to say that, for reasons outside their control, they couldn’t join me. So I had an unexpected fortnight on my own. For a few years now I’d been lamenting the fact that there was never time to finish writing my book – ‘It’s your thoughts that count’ – so I decided that this enforced solitude had to have come for a reason. For two weeks I spent the mornings basking in beautiful sunshine on my balcony, contemplating, dreaming, drinking coffee and writing notes! I realised that I’d never given myself this sort of ‘thinking’ time before and it brought heaps of excellent ideas to mind. In the afternoons I wrote, interspersed with watching selected tennis matches being played at the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris. What a life!

And so the days passed very happily. Each day I strolled down into the city. I marvelled at the divine offerings in the window of a pâtisserie.

I visited the Bank, in the town square.

I went to a Rotary meeting, where the cuisine was exquisite and not a little different from what we experience at Rotary dinners in New Zealand!

And I enjoyed as many conversations as I could. How I love France!

In the midst of all my writing, my friend of last year, Jacqueline, invited me to spend the day with her and her friend, Marie, at La Grande Motte. They took me o visit a small fishing village nearby called le Grau du Roi, which was teeming with activity.

Then we went to have lunch in a pailotte (sort of permanent marquee) on the edge of the ocean.

Both the lunch and the environment were out of this world and the conversation was, of course, extremely stimulating!

What a lovely day spent in the company of charming and intelligent French women.

And then, in the nick of time, just before I left France on 24 June, I felt able to write ‘The End’ and put my book away. When I get back to New Zealand I can think about the next steps to take to get it published.

Around France - 14 May-24 June 2009

 
 
 
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