A Winelover’s Tour de France ( 8 )

We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment. (Hilaire
Thursday was a warm, calm day spent taking in the sights of
Toulouse. And sights there were aplenty. Toulouse is a university city,
and Bede had never seen so many good-looking young women in one
place. He was also able to appreciate the beautiful architecture of the
city – the weathered pink and ochre of the brick buildings was
particularly attractive. The city’s past lives on in its splendid
buildings: the Basilica of St Sernin; Les Jacobins, a monastery and
church built to house the Dominican order; and the Musée des
Augustins, the largest museum in Toulouse. Impressive, too, are the
Place du Capitole and the Capitole building, or city hall. Bede
particularly enjoyed discovering a number of second-hand bookshops
with English paperbacks, and old record shops.
The next morning Bede was up very early to pack and have breakfast,
as arranged the night before with the hotel. This was done so as to be
sure of catching the 7.15am train to Carcassonne. Bede had been told
the day before by the railway authorities that he would need to catch
this particular train if he wanted to take his bicycle as accompanying
luggage on the next stage of his journey. On his arrival in
Carcassonne an hour or so later he was dismayed to find that his
bicycle was not on the same train and would not be through for
another 24 hours. The Bordeaux experience all over again!
Bede occupied himself, on a rather grey and dampish day, by
exploring this ancient fortress city, with its medieval double walls and
towers surrounding it. He discovered that Carcassonne is actually two
cities, separated by the river Aude. The more modern city, around the
railway station, is somewhat uninspiring, whereas the old medieval
cité is a far more interesting place. His wanderings led him along the
grass stretches between the double walls surrounding the old cité,
which open up wide views over the surrounding countryside. His
resting place for the night was the Hôtel Le Cathare, with a one star
rating and situated within an easy walk of the railway station. Bede
had a single room on the top floor overlooking the street, with the
toilet and shower down the hall.
His lasting memory of this place is of being particularly tired the next
morning due to being kept awake most of the night by scratching and
thumping noises coming from the ceiling and down the walls. Bede
was convinced that the place was infested with rats and that at any
moment they would break through into the room. However, at sunrise
the noise abated and he discovered the source of all the disturbance
when a number of pigeons came out from under the roof to greet the
day and venture forth on wings of flight. They may have had
sufficient rest to face the new day, but he certainly had not.
It was a weary traveller who boarded the train to Montpellier that
morning with his bicycle, not knowing what lay ahead of him. It
turned out to be a brilliantly hot day by late morning and his arrival in
Montpellier coincided with a special market day in the centre of the
city. There were stalls and tents set up in the Place de la Comédie,
offering a range of foods and wines,, as well as paintings and
craftware produced by local artisans. There was a mood of gaiety and
lightness in the air which lifted him and set the tone for the rest of his
stay in this delightful place.
Montpellier is a city that repays inspection. Bede stayed for only two
nights but could happily have stayed much longer. It is a beautiful
city, with many 17th and 18th century public buildings and mansions.
On exploring this old city he discovered stone-flagged narrow streets
and alleyways, upmarket boutiques, smart cafés, bars and restaurants,
and impressive public buildings and squares.
The liveliest centre is the Place de la Comédie, paved with marble and
the site of the baroque theatre. Leading out of the square is the
Esplanade, a pleasant, shaded promenade created in the 18th century.
One of the gems of the place is the Musée Fabre, which houses one of
the best art collections in provincial France. From the garden of
Peyrou you can glimpse the hills of the Cévennes. The Peyrou
consists of an immense terrace garden laid out on the highest part of
the city and commanding, in all directions, a view of the surrounding
countryside. There is an exquisite statue of Louis XIV set aloft in the
middle of the terrace, and a very exultant and complicated water
tower, which forms a background to the setting. This tower is fed by a
splendid aqueduct, stretched in the most ornamental and unexpected
manner across the neighbouring valley. All this work dates from the
middle of the 17th century. Close by there is a botanical garden,
which is the oldest in France. Yet all is not old in this place, for there
are many fine modern buildings, such as the Polygone, the new
administrative and commercial centre, with a new town hall built in
the modernist style.
Montpellier has been an important wine centre for many centuries.
Today its importance is just as great, as it houses the École Nationale
Supérieure Agronomique, the École d’Oenologie and the École de
Viticulture, and as such is the main centre in France for the study of
the cultivation of the vine.
Bede stayed at the Hôtel du Parc, located in a quiet back street near
the city centre. He was made to feel very much at home here by a
young man by the name of Benoit, who was in charge of the hotel
over the weekend. It turned out that Benoit was studying law and
working in the hotel part-time. Benoit arranged for him to have a very
comfortable room on the ground floor in a wing with its own
courtyard and private setting. That night they shared a bottle of red
wine and watched the French rugby club final on TV. The match was
a very rugged affair, played in Paris between Toulouse and Toulon,
and won by Toulouse 18–12. Bede’s thoughts at the time were how
could life be any better given the place, the company, good wine and
viewing a very good game of rugby football live on TV. An occasion
of sheer bliss!


BARRY JOHNS  ( aka Le Vigneron )