Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Lézignac ...

So it really is quite amazing just how desolate it is as you head south, until you get down to Béziers and on to the Languedocienne and west towards Toulouse, and the countryside becomes more rolling and suddenly greener and there's more than blasted pines and low vicious scrub to break the view. So, at least, Margo and I reflected, once I'd woken up and was in a condition to appreciate the sights as we drove down.

For we left around 5:30, which in my opinion is no fit hour to be doing anything, but on the bright side we missed the traffic jams planned foreseen for the day. It's also astounding to see the little ornamental pruniers sauvages already in blossom, breaking out into pink and white clumps of flowers against the bright blue sky.

We didn't stop to admire them, but carried on to Lézignac-Corbières where we got off the autoroute and huddled in the car for 45 minutes, being as what
  1. the ultra-montane was blowing, and whilst it's not especially cold in and of itself it is very searching, Wellingtonians take note, and
  2. our rendez-vous was for 10:30, so we were kind of early. So huddling seemed like our best option.
Eventually a bright-yellow two-seater Kangoo pulled up and out hopped Peter, a burly white-haired Mancunian somewhere in his sixties I guess, wrapped warmly in a huge black woolen duffel coat and black leather gloves: after an exchange of civilities he squoze into the Suzy and we went off to find the first place on the list.

Which turned out to be in some teeny little village near the town of Durban (well, I'm calling it a "town" out of politeness, its main claim to fame would be that it is, in fact, larger than this place was), on the main street: a fairly nondescript house on three floors with a few steps up to an imposing front door.

In the car Peter had given us a brief potted history of the place, closing with the ominous - to me, anyway - warning that it had been tastefully decorated in "French Modern" and it would be true to say that I guess they'd spent a long time looking through back issues of House & Garden: very much flat areas of colour, stripped wood, glass-topped tables and curiousity cabinets full of knick-knacks and gew-gaws. Actually, very nicely done, and inside the place was huge. A point in its favour. Also, had to love the old tiled floors.

So we poked around, had our coffees, made friends with the retarded Labrador that proudly dragged its filthy blanket from the pile of dirty washing and showed it to us, and then headed off vaguely to the next place on the list ... and as we went we mentioned that we'd seen some lovely places around St Laurent de Cabressrine when we came through last time, and Peter thoughtfully sucked his teeth and then said that he'd an American friend who'd just come back from her place in LA and that he was pretty sure she knew of somewhere in Lagrasse, and we'd an hour or so before we needed to be in Capestang, so why not take a detour ...

We poked around Lagrasse (which has a famous abbey that we'd somehow missed last time) and saw this old hotel that was next to (and somehow, in a sort of semi-organic way, part of) his friend's house, and then another place that he knew was up for sale, and we wound up buying a baguette and having lunch seated on an old stone wall (forgetting all those dire warnings about getting piles) overlooking the river. Don't you hate it when hard-boiled eggs won't peel properly?

And Peter told us of how he'd been in computers before - electronic document management, to be precise - and how he came to be in France, and of his Damascene conversion to the delights of goat's cheese, as we kicked our heels in the sun above the water.

Anyway, the easiest way - it seems - to get from where we were to where we were supposed to be was to orbit Narbonne and then take the good old D9 to points west, which we duly did. This is not, I admit, a particularly interesting fact in itself, and I merely point it out because it gave us the opportunity to remark on the high density of working girls along its length.

Around here we think we have a problem with the ladies of negociable affection, but I swear that along that stretch of road it's a question of the number of ladies per kilometre: suppose it's cheaper than erecting milestones.

Also, they have no vans (and don't ask me how they get out there in the first place, maybe there's a special bus route), apparently not even a blanket, so where in hell to they go to do the act? Under a gorse bush, or on the back seat of the Audi? Just asking. In any case, we did not stop to pick any of them up, and left them dancing forlornly in what I guess they thought might have been an alluring manner as we carried on.

Now Capestang is a lovely village on the canal du Midi, and we parked on the banks of the canal and threw rocks at ducks until Lesley, another agent, turned up and we all trooped off down twisty stone streets before winding up in front of a huge green gate in an otherwise blank wall. Which hid a warm courtyard, and old walls with Virginia creeper all over, and a crooked house ...

Had rather assumed that the English couple lounging in the sun waiting for us were in fact a couple, but when we came out again Peter was worming their life story out and now world + dog knows that his wife died, and then her husband died, and they became what they rather touchingly called "an item" and that two houses was one too many for a couple in their sixties and that hers was smaller so they'd keep that and sell his: amazing what you find out.

The idea of getting out a bottle of rosé and spending a bit of quality time in the sun, under the parasol in the courtyard to the sound of tinkling water from the fountain was incredibly appealing, but duty called and anyway we is made of sterner stuff, so we tore ourselves reluctantly away and metaphorically saddled up, destination Azillanet for the next visit.

Interesting place, with very definite possibilities: of course the place would have to be gutted, rewired and replumbed but if the price is right that can be done.

I certainly had not expected to find that the only apparent means of cooking was the open fireplace in the ridiculously tiny kitchen, which showed signs of fairly recent use. I suppose the old biddy who once lived there was used to it, and I must admit it would be ideal for smoking hams ... still, it would definitely have to go.

And then for a bit of wilderness adventure, for Lesley wanted to show us the garden which went with the place, and was only a five-minute drive away in the hills behind. Sadly, she either did not know or had, more likely, forgotten, that access was via a rutted goat-track worthy of the back-blocks of some wretched African state, and I can now tell you that a low-slung 3-series BMW sedan does not really appreciate such roads. Still, the GPS showed us where we were at all times, even if someone had, inexplicably, neglected to program in the position of the more notable potholes.

So after inspecting the half-hectare of terraced gardens with the stream babbling down alongside and the view out over the valley we made helpful suggestions as she backed down, seconded by one of the local agriculteurs who'd come out to see the fun.

(Actually, he'd been out with his family cutting bamboo and disposing of it, in the time-honoured peasant tradition, by pushing it off a small cliff so that it became Someone Else's Problem, but that's neither here nor there. A charming chap in other respects, although you could have cut his accent with a knife.)

It's an odd thing, but real-estate agents seem to make a habit of knowing every imaginable little commerçant in even the tiniest of villages. I suppose that's their stock in trade, having a network of people who can inform them that old Mme Machin is about to pop her clogs, or that the cat-fight between the frères Morveux is getting to the point where they'll have to sell up, if only to get the cash to pay the lawyers. (Contingency fees seem unknown in France, just saying.)

My point is that Lesley knew of some good bread in the village, and so we stopped at this tiny hole in the wall boulangerie - hell, I wouldn't even have known there was actually a shop in there - and went down three steps into a tiny warm room with a huge old stone oven in the back wall and admired the rustic loaves made of interesting seeds, like a mix of linseed, sunflower and a few others that escape me, or the one we finally walked off with, made with flour ground from the Roussillon hairy-eared gratte-cul or something like that. And very nice it turned out to be, the next day for breakfast.

Last stop Siran, for an impromptu stop at the old brick cave co-operative which has been bought, gutted, divided into units and put up for sale by a local entrepreneur (who has, sadly, had to divide his prices by at least two) and then a stone townhouse in the centre.

At which point, as the sun went down behind the cedars, we bade farewell to Lesley (Peter having abandoned us earlier to get off to his birthday party) and, as there was not really anything to look at on the Sunday, decided we might as well head back home.

But first we needed food, so we went back to Lézignan and, by the simple expedient of wandering the streets, came across a pizzeria which seemed acceptable and went inside. Turned out to be an excellent choice, even if we were, at the start, the only clients. Once we'd installed ourselves in came old Georges, an elderly man whose greyish skin colour would've done a zombie proud, and he sat down and accepted the news that there would be no pizza nordique that night because the salmon was off stoically enough before going on to discuss, at length, the boeuf bourguignon that the restaurant was going to cook for him, for a family meal chez lui later that week.

So she warned him that she'd need a few days notice because she'd have to thaw the meat out - and all "dans les règles de l'art, pas de micro-ondes mais decongelation à temperature ambiente, tu sais" and then marinate it for at least a day, and then his mate Robert came in and sat down, the sad news about the salmon was imparted to him, and as we started to eat our superb pizzas the pair of them started in on the soup.

It's always nice to discover somewhere that actually does their own home-grown profiteroles with chocolate sauce that is not squeezed from a bottle but is just dark chocolate melted in cream generously poured over light crispy choux pastry balls stuffed with ice cream (should you find yourself in the district, Pizzeria Stromboli gets three silver spoons and a plate-lick from me) and we took advantage to linger and listen to the rest of Georges and Roberts's edifying conversation.

Which started out with them wondering exactly who it was who had the right screws for repairing the other's armchair, carried on into a discussion of the early adoption by the Gauls of modern (for the times) agricultural implements, such as the sickle ("long before", Robert proudly stated, "those Romans"), which segued in turn into a dissertation on the language abilities of our cousins the great apes, before going on to the vexed question of whether or not a chicken could be considered to be self-aware.

Sadly I cannot give you the answer, for about then we decided that, fascinating as it all was, we really should hit the road. Maybe next time we go down we'll have the good luck to find them again, and I can ask.

In any case, we paid, made our excuses and left - made it back home at some ungodly hour of the morning with nary a soupçon of a ralentissement, and promptly hit the sack, for it was a long day.

And that, possums, is the end of the story. We have an offer on the house, we now have to pull finger. Night, all.

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