AT HOME IN THE LANGUEDOC
Published 4/28/13 by the Tampa Bay Times
By Steve VandeGriek
Photos by Jan Behmer
I stand in a crowd at a corner of the Sunday market on the main square in St. Chinian, shaded by plane trees and hypnotized by a large rack of chickens rotisserie-ing over a huge bed of sliced potatoes, dripping, dripping, dripping until, when all is cooked, I taste the chicken and it is exquisite, and then I try the potatoes and then I slam more potatoes into my mouth and join the rest of the crowd in a loud sing-with-your-mouth-full chorus of “Vive la chicken fat!”
My wife and I have rented a house just off the square and, having arrived last evening, this is our first day in town. The market will return Thursday. In the meantime, what to do? And that is the joy of being at home for awhile in St. Chinian.
The village of about 1800 people lies near the confluence of the Orb and VernazobreRivers in the hilly heart of the Languedoc Region of southern France.
Vineyards surround it on all sides. This is France, after all, and wine is everywhere. It is lodged in the psyche of the people and of the land itself. But here in the Languedoc, the obsession is more relaxed than in some regions of the country. The wine, too, is relaxed – delightfully drinkable, sans all the pomposity apt to bust your budget or make your eyes roll. As Mary Hemingway used to say, “We’re drinking wine, not labels.”
The house we’ve taken is a completely renovated centuries old building on a small side street about fifty yards from the square. It has a fully equipped kitchen, a living room, dining area, two bedrooms, a laundry room and a bathroom larger than a New York City apartment I once lived in. It is completely and comfortably furnished, including TV, DVD, Wi-Fi, and hundreds of books. All this in high season at less cost than a mid-range hotel.
We’ve come this time by necessity in summer, which we rarely do. The area is not teeming with tourists, as is much of the continent this time of year, but it is warm. When we’ve gathered all our dinner makings we retreat to the house for an après market siesta.
Le Pressoir is a hotel on a small rise about a mile out of town. It has a restaurant and abuts a large supermarché and a gas station. Convenient if you’re passing through. But if your dream is to bring your market basket home to the kitchen like the locals do, there are vacation rental properties galore in and around town and in the area at large.
When the late afternoon air cools off a bit, we venture out again. Nowhere in the village is more than a ten minute walk from our house. Walking around the edge of the square, we pass five elderly gentlemen sitting on a long bench. They smile at us and offer four “bonjours” and one “bonsoir.” I assume the one fellow has an earlier bedtime than his compatriots. This scene would be repeated every day of our stay, and every day it was as if the exchange had been going on for years.
We stroll through a plant-filled park at the bottom of the square, then past the church and a few shops. A little further down the street we stand on the bridge over the VernazobreRiver. Centuries ago the nearby medieval Canal de L’Abbé supplied water power to the town’s mills and workshops. We walk back into the town center, pass a winery, and stop outside a small bar to drink a beer and watch our fellow St. Chinians go by. Across the bottom of the square from the park is a grocery – very convenient for non-market days. We buy a bottle of wine to go with the fish we’re cooking later.
After dinner and some BBC programming on the TV, we browse through the house’s library for a book to go to sleep by.
In the cool early morning we walk from the top of the square out the other end of the village, past rows of small vegetable gardens. We pick up a lane that stretches through hundreds of acres of vines. The light of southern France lays on the vista of vines as in a Van Gogh painting. We walk for an hour and a half and see no one.
Back in the village, at the top of the square, is La Maison des Vins de Saint Chinian. The old building was once the house of the French pop singer Charles Trenet. It now sells wines from all twenty towns that comprise the St. Chinian appellation. The sales staff are a fount of information and offer wine tastings on a daily basis.
This region has been an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for red and rosé wines since 1982, and since 2004 for whites. The twenty villages are all a short distance away. A driving tour through several of them is a pleasant day trip. Many of the vineyards have small tasting shops selling their vintages directly to visitors, without a middleman markup.
Easy day trips abound from a base in St. Chinian. The preserved Medieval town of Minerve is about thirty kilometers to the south and west. It is listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. The list doesn’t lie. Olargues is another, roughly the same distance to the north and lying below the slopes of the 1100 meter high Monts de L’Espinouse. A distinctive single mount looming above Olargues is known to the locals as the “Sleeping Lady”. Have lunch outside and see if you can discern her pointy nose. Only twenty kilometers west is St.-Pons-de-Thomières, with a large Wednesday market and a magnificent Cathedral, originally Romanesque, housing an eighteenth century organ, both of which are registered as historic monuments. Due east and even closer is the Abbaye de Fontcaude, founded in the twelfth century. Its museum is small, but holds an interesting assortment of medieval artifacts. Its cloister is the most serene spot we encountered all week.
Dozens of charming villages lie within leisurely driving distance through postcard pretty countryside. There is a bustling outdoor market in one small town or another every day, offering remarkable breads, cheeses, fish, fresh produce, soaps, oils, lavender, wine and Moroccan baskets and shoes.
Back in St. Chinian another cloister enchants. It’s on the site of the nineteenth century Abbey Sanch Anian for which the town is named. The cloister hosts cultural events on a regular basis.
Should you tire of marketing and cooking in – “We’re on vacation after all.” “No, no, we live here!” – there are several casual restaurants on the main street, bordering the bottom of the town square. Most have their own variations on the region’s three specialties – foie gras, confit, and cassoulet. Café de la Paix has garden seating, nicely shaded for a lunch al fresco. In the evening, La Caleche, while still relaxed, offers a slightly more upscale dining experience.
Festivals take place in the region throughout the year. St. Chinians love their Fête du Cru on the first Sunday after Bastille Day (July 14). They have a festival to celebrate the wine harvest, which usually ends in mid-October. People from all over the region drive to the small town of Lautrec, near Albi (which is home to the ToulouseLautrecMuseum) for a huge garlic festival in early August. It’s about an hour and a half from St. Chinian. Nearby St. Pons hosts a chestnut festival in late October. There’s a bullfight feria in Beziers every August. And the town of Olargues holds half a dozen festivals between May and Christmas.
There is a lot to France. There is Paris. There is Provence. There is Normandy. We love them all. The Languedoc is none of these. It is quieter, gentler, more budget friendly. The region as a whole has some major tourist sites – Roman ruins, the ancient fortified town of Carcassone, the wildlife paradise of the Camargue, to name a few. But this small heart of the Languedoc is less about sites and more about what it feels like to live simply French.
IF YOU GO: St. Chinian
GETTING THERE: If you’re flying from the U.S., Barcelona is the nearest
international airport. You can connect on Air France or
KLM to Toulouse or Montpelllier, either way, about a
two hour drive to St. Chinian. Connections are more
abundant from Paris, and Ryanair flies to the small airport
at Beziers, only an hour’s drive away.
We drove from the Barcelona airport up through the Pyrenées-
a spectacular day’s drive, but not advisable in winter.
DRIVING: It’s cheaper to arrange your car rental in the U.S. before you leave.
Roads are good. They are hilly and meander a bit, and ambitious
cyclists are numerous. Most towns have a gas station, but you can
go a long time between fillups in a fuel efficient European car. Road
signs are generally good, but a Michelin map is handy.
WHERE TO STAY: We rented our house through Midihideaways, Ltd. They manage a
variety of properties in St. Chinian and the surrounding area.
Most are available year round. Prices vary by house and season.
Find them at midihideaways.com.
Le Pressoir is the hotel just outside town. Standard room rates are
62 euros in low season, 72 in high. The restaurant serves breakfast
for 8-11 euros. They also have a half pension plan that includes
MARKETS: Sunday and Thursday in St. Chinian. You can find schedules for
all other town markets on your Ipad or at the St. Chinian
tourist office at the bottom of the square.
N.B. At the Market. Buy two baguettes. One will mysteriously . disappear as you walk around.